British Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on Jan. 22. Cameron hosts French President Francois Hollande at their first bilateral summit on Friday. (Carl Court / AFP)
LONDON — British Prime Minister David Cameron hosts French President Francois Hollande at their first bilateral summit on Friday, likely to be dominated by defense issues but also tensions over the EU.
The first Anglo-French summit since Hollande’s election in 2012 takes place at a military base in Cameron’s constituency in Oxfordshire, west of London, and will be followed by lunch at a country pub.
Away from the matters of state, Hollande is also unlikely to escape questions at a press conference about his recent split with his partner, Valerie Trierweiler.
The setting reflects the strong defense theme. The leaders are expected to sign memoranda of understanding to cooperate on an anti-ship missile, an unmanned combat air vehicle and a submarine mine detector.
Cameron and Hollande, accompanied by their defense and foreign ministers, will also discuss a 10,000-strong joint combat force proposed to be operational by 2016.
The talks build on a landmark agreement on defense and security cooperation signed in London in 2010 by Cameron and Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
British-French deals on nuclear energy are also on the program, as are discussions on Syria and Iran, on which the two leaders are closely aligned.
Cameron is also likely to use the half-day summit at the Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Brize Norton to press a more contentious subject — European Union reform.
Under pressure from eurosceptics in his Conservative party, Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU and put the new deal to a referendum by 2017, provided he wins the 2015 election.
But French officials warned this week that while some EU treaty changes may be necessary, it was not at all clear they would go through in the timeframe Cameron requires.
One official complained that the referendum pledge had opened up a “permanent debate” in Britain about its role in Europe that had only hardened the eurosceptic position.
In that context “accidents are possible,” the official said, referring to the danger that British voters opt to quit the EU.
“We have a shared interest that Britain stays in Europe, but not at the price of dismantling the EU,” the official added.
At the back of Hollande’s mind in the pub on Friday will also be the frequent swipes made by Cameron’s Conservatives about the Socialist president’s handling of the French economy.
Even if such criticisms are “neither justified or agreeable,” France will rise above it, an aide said, adding there would be no reciprocal “British-bashing.”