French president deals blow to Cameron's EU plans
BRIZE NORTON, United Kingdom - Agence France-Presse
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (R) introduces dignitaries to France's President Francois Hollande at RAF Brize Norton near Oxford in central England, January 31, 2014. REUTERS photoFrench President Francois Hollande dealt a blow Friday to Prime Minister David Cameron's hopes of renegotiating Britain's membership of the EU before a referendum in 2017, saying treaty change was "not a priority".
At an Anglo-French summit held at an airbase in Oxfordshire, west of London, Hollande indicated he might be open to treaty change in the future to ensure the eurozone was "better coordinated and better integrated".
But he added: "We feel that revising the treaty is not a priority for the time being." Under pressure from eurosceptics in his Conservative party, Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain's position in the European Union and put the new deal to a referendum after the next election in 2015.
Hollande said he "perfectly respected" Britain's right to hold a vote, but added: "We can't impose the British choice on Europe." Cameron brushed off the comments, however, saying he was optimistic of achieving the change he wanted and insisting nothing would stop him holding a referendum provided he is re-elected next year.
"My position absolutely remains that we want to see those changes, we want that renegotiation... that renegotiation will involve elements of treaty change," Cameron told a joint press conference.
At their first summit since Hollande was elected in 2012, the two leaders sought to emphasise their shared European goals, notably to improve growth and create jobs.
The Conservative prime minister also praised his Socialist counterpart's recent moves to boost the struggling French economy.
"I believe the plans the president recently announced to cut taxes on business, reduce employment costs and remove unnecessary regulation are the right way to boost investment and create jobs," Cameron said.
The British leader also praised Hollande's "courageous and determined leadership" in Mali and the Central African Republic, promising further logistical support.
The summit was held at the Royal Air Force (RAF) base from where British C-17 transport planes took off to help with the French missions in Africa.
The setting reflected the strong defence theme of the summit, which was aimed at building on a landmark agreement on defence and security cooperation between Britain and France in 2010.
Under the shadow of an RAF A330 Voyager parked in a hangar, two leaders signed agreements to jointly purchase anti-ship missiles for use on naval helicopters and to launch a feasibility study into jointly producing an armed drone.
The summit breathes fresh life into the 2010 defence agreement, which was signed by Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and appeared to stall when the Socialist was elected.
Despite their differences, both Cameron and Hollande are still driven by the need to cut defence spending following the global financial crisis.
France has also agreed to swap delivery slots for two Airbus A400M military transport aircraft, so that Britain can have them earlier than planned.
Cameron and Hollande inspected a French A400M on the runway before their talks, which also saw agreements in boosting cooperation in civil nuclear energy and space exploration.
After the summit Hollande and Cameron retired to the pub to discuss wider issues such as Syria, Iran and the EU.
Despite their differences, the two leaders put on a good show of cooperation, the only awkward moment coming when a British journalist asked about Hollande's recent separation from his partner.
The president announced last week he was splitting from First Lady Valerie Trierweiler after media reports that he was having an affair with an actress.
"Do you think your private life has made France an international joke, are you still having an affair with Julie Gayet and do you wish she was here?" the reporter asked.
To which Hollande replied: "I will not answer."