FEARS British armed forces could be dragged into an EU army have escalated after Michael Fallon said UK troops should further integrate with their European counterparts.
The Defence Secretary, speaking from Salisbury Plain where a joint exercise comprising British and French forces was taking place, hailed the “growing partnership” of European nations on military operations.
Mr Fallon said UK military cooperated with their European neighbours on “every front”, including British and French pilots flying each other’s jets and both nations’ ship sailing alongside one another.
But he added: “Today we take that partnership to a new level.”
Describing the new Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), a 5,000-strong rapid deployment Anglo-French force designed to respond to humanitarian crises as well as conventional conflicts, he said a “new chapter” had opened that would take cooperation between the two nations “to greater heights”.
The Defence Secretary said: “This is no paper tiger, this is a force that from now on has the teeth, the means, the speed and the agility to act.”
Mr Fallon added that it was now unlikely that Britain would “ever go into conflict on its own again”.
However, he later sought to clarify his comments, telling Express.co.uk Britain was not about to form an EU army but instead wanted simply to work more closely with its allies.
Speaking alongside him, Mr Fallon’s French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian said the joint exercise was just the “start” of military cooperation across the continent.
But the notion of a pan-European army has provoked outrage from critics on both sides of the Brexit debate.
Former defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is campaigning to remain in the EU, rubbished the idea of an integrated fighting force controlled by Brussels, telling the Express.co.uk militray maters were “not a responsibility of the European Union”.
And Ukip’s defence spokesman Mike Hookem called for Mr Fallon to resign over his apparent support of further integration with Brussels, saying it was time for the Tory minister to “step aside”.
The MEP said: “Fallon and his pro-EU cohorts in the Ministry of Defence, the same people who are denying troops the right to campaign in the referendum, deny an EU Army is being developed.
“The British public hold our Armed Forces in high esteem and will not stand by as they see them handed over to a foreign power who does not have the interest and safety of the British public at heart.”
Speaking as Exercise Griffin Strike – the largest joint exercise between Britain and France in more than 50 years – got underway in Salisbury, Mr Fallon said the only people to gain from Brexit would be those in Moscow and Raqqa – Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital.
He claimed not a single defence minister anywhere in the world would welcome a British departure from the 28-member bloc apart those in the Kremlin or in ISIS’ self-declared caliphate.
He said: “Leaving would only bring comfort to our enemies, whether they are sitting in Moscow or Daesh terrorists sitting in Raqqa.
His highly-charged remarks risk deepening divides in the Conservative Party by suggesting those who are advocating Brexit are unwittingly handing a military victory to the terror group.