'Strong' Franco-British defense relationship won't be hit by Brexit: Fallon says

PARIS (Reuters) - Britain’s exit from the European Union will not have an impact its defense ties with France despite concerns they could be harmed by tough divorce talks, Defence Minister Michael Fallon said.

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In an interview with Reuters, Fallon sought to stress the close relationship between Europe’s two largest military powers, who agreed in Paris on Thursday to hold joint exercises in September and November in eastern Europe and Kenya.

“I know French and British companies are concerned that we should not lose any cooperation after Brexit because we are working together on combat aircraft programs and new missiles systems that we need to progress on together,” Fallon said.

Shrinking budgets, a less indulgent United States and Europe’s diminishing military clout in the world have in recent years bolstered the two countries’ determination to work together.

But in July, Paris and Berlin unexpectedly announced plans for a joint fighter jet, catching many in Britain off guard.

Asked whether this and other Europe-wide efforts for closer defense integration could hamper the ties, Fallon said he was confident that the two traditional allies would continue as usual.

“This is a strong relationship and it is not going to be diverted by Brexit,” he said.

Britain’s exit negotiations with the European Union this week failed to make the kind of progress needed to open talks on their future relationship in October, the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said earlier on Thursday.

Fallon said there was bound to be “the odd stumble” as both sides jostled for position, but that it was in the interests of Britain and EU to end the uncertainty as quickly as possible.

“Everyone knows that in the end there has to be a settlement,” he said.

Both permanent veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, Britain and France are engaged in air strikes on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and Fallon said he believed the militant group would soon be defeated in its Syrian bastion of Raqqa.

“The battle to liberate Mosul took nine months and we’re seeing some of the heaviest urban fighting we’ve seen since the Second World War,” he said. “We won’t set a timetable ... but I hope it won’t be too long before Daesh is driven out of Raqqa,” he said referring to an Arabic acronym for the hardline Islamist group.

Fallon also said a military victory should not be achieved to the detriment of stabilizing the city and restoring civilian rule once Raqqa was taken.

“One thing we learnt from Iraq is that we mustn’t let the military campaign get too far ahead of the political process,” he said.

“Islamic State is on back foot in Syria and Iraq and losing territory. We have every prospect of Raqqa being liberated, but after that we have to work for proper governance to make sure Sunni populations have a stake in the future,” he said.

Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Alison Williams