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Britain and Germany set to sign defence co-operation deal

British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 9, 2017.
Yves Herman | Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 9, 2017.

Britain and Germany are set to sign a new defence co-operation deal after the UK launches Brexit, as Theresa May attempts to reinforce claims that she is not turning her back on Europe.

The British prime minister is seeking to emphasise Britain's big contribution to European security to gain goodwill among her 27 EU partners amid concerns that the Brexit negotiations could prove very tough and might even break down.

The UK defence ministry said it was working with Germany "on a joint vision statement on future co-operation" while the German defence ministry confirmed it was working on joint projects. "Independent of the effects of Brexit, Great Britain remains a strong partner and ally in Nato and also bilaterally," it said.

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Areas of co-operation are expected to include work on cyber security, training and maritime patrols. This year, for example, Britain's new Wildcat helicopter will be deployed from a German frigate in the Mediterranean.

Sir Michael Fallon, UK defence secretary, has been talking to some EU countries about building up military links in a move to reassure them that Britain is committed to European security and the Nato alliance.

German chancellor Angela Merkel is equally determined that Britain's European defence and security role is highlighted as a benefit for other states — and a signal that the UK can expand some forms of European co-operation even after Brexit.

Berlin is also anxious to demonstrate its growing defence responsibilities in the wake of Donald Trump's complaints that most of the US's European partners — and especially Germany — spend too little on their defence and rely too much on the US. The US president confronted Ms Merkel directly with his criticisms at Friday's tetchy summit between the two leaders in Washington.

Although Germany lags behind Britain and France in military significance, the political symbolism is significant in the light of Brexit and of the US reviewing its overseas military role. London and Berlin see it as particularly important to show a common front in eastern Europe, where Nato states feel threatened by Moscow in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and big increases in Russian forces on the country's western borders.

Britain is leading a new Nato deployment in Estonia and Germany is leading one in Lithuania, with Canada and the US doing the same in Latvia and Poland. Meanwhile, the UK and Germany are engaged in the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq: the RAF is flying bombing missions and Germany is providing reconnaissance aircraft, and training in Iraq.

While Mr Trump has pledged his "100 per cent" backing for Nato, he remains determined to squeeze bigger financial contributions, above all from Germany. In Washington, Ms Merkel repeated a pledge to lift overall German defence spending from 1.2 per cent of GDP to 2 per cent, in line with Nato commitments.

But she failed to satisfy Mr Trump, who tweeted after the meeting that "Germany owes vast sums of money to Nato" and the US "must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defence it provides to Germany!"

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen hit back on Sunday saying there was no "debt account in Nato" and that the 2 per cent target was, in any case, not limited to Nato spending but covered other purposes such as EU-based defence co-operation and UN missions.