Why is Cameron being so nice to France? Think EU renegotiation

Cameron has bet his political life on renegotiating membership: hence the help for France in Africa

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:05 ON Fri 1 Feb 2013

WHAT is Prime Minister David Cameron really up to on his promenade through North Africa? Algiers, Tripoli and now Monrovia have provided opportunities for stopovers and soundbites of geo-strategic jargon. One minute we're fighting the new jihadi threat, the next we're trying to tie up the Lockerbie case, and then we're off to Monrovia to resolve African poverty.

There is something almost Napoleonic about the sweep of energy and vision – though it must be noted that Napoleon's vision, not to mention his army, didn't do too well on its away fixture in the Egyptian expedition in 1798, thanks to Nelson.

In Libya, Cameron wore the mantle of the liberator, the man who helped overthrow the dictator Gadaffi. As they say, it isn't so much that generals like to fight the last campaign – it's that they like to fight the last campaign that they liked.

Anyway, the simple two-word answer to why Cameron is doing all this is – The French.

Britain first sent transport and surveillance planes to Mali, and then 330 ground forces to back several training teams, because President Hollande asked for them.

This is the new Anglo-French military agreement in action. It is interesting that David Cameron has so far taken more concrete action under the agreement he signed with the French leadership in 2010 than Tony Blair ever did following his military pact with President Chirac at St Malo in 1998.

And the timing is perfect. France has asked for UK help in Mali just as David Cameron is looking for a favour from across the Channel for his own personal EU problem.

If Cameron can help out Paris in Sahel-belt Africa, an area of vital interest to France, then Paris is more likely to help out with his bid to renegotiate Britain's terms of EU membership – which will then be put to a referendum before the end of 2017.

Cameron, who looks a little more likely to win the 2015 general election than he did at Christmas, is betting his political life on negotiating a more flexible arrangement with Brussels. Berlin and Paris hold the key to his achieving that aim.

Of the two leaders, it was always assumed that Chancellor Merkel in Berlin would be more important than President Hollande in Paris. But with the defeat of the CDU in the recent Lower Saxony regional election, there is a strong chance that Angela Merkel will not be running Germany after the general elections this coming autumn. Francois Hollande, on the hand hand, will be around for the next three autumns at least.

France recognises Britain as its principal European ally in Nato and in the EU security structure – the British Army and Special Forces can provide real heft for expeditionary missions and operations.

Furthermore, both Paris and London know that the US is becoming increasingly reluctant – at least while Barack Obama is president - to get involved in Mediterranean and North African security. True, the small US Africa Command has been talking about setting up a new base for their drones in Niger. But the Pentagon has been wary about sharing drone technology with allies.

France and Britain, meanwhile, are both developing new stealth drones - the Taranis by Bae and the nEUROn by Dassault – and the two programmes are so similar they might usefully be combined, given that both countries are working with tight defence budgets.

There can be no clearer sign of Washington's new spirit of Euro-reluctance than President Obama's second inaugural address last month. Though full of talk of togetherness on the domestic front, his speech did not mention the words Europe or Nato once.

So there is some method in Cameron's cunning plan to be nice to France across the scorching sands of the Sahara and beyond. ·