Alphen, the Netherlands. 17 February. David Cameron is today in Paris to meet with his ‘friend’ French President Nicholas Sarkozy. The ostensible purpose of the meeting is to sign a treaty of co-operation on the sharing of civil nuclear technology, i.e. the French are to remind the English of what they once knew about nuclear stuff but have now forgotten, and to confirm a new joint military headquarters and defence-industrial co-operation over a new unmanned aerial vehicle rather bizarrely called MALE (why not call it 'Fred' or 'Pierre'?).
In fact the real reason for the meeting is both much more political and much more profound – the reaffirmation that in spite all of the usual spats between the two countries the grand strategic principles the two countries share are so profound that England and France must hang together or hang separately. This is the only way both countries can craft real strategy in austerity, via an Entente Frugale.
Now, before I go further I must declare myself. For all my not-so-occasional frustrations with the French ability to be consistently wrong about almost everything I remain a Francophile. And, in spite of once having a very French boss, I retain a strong respect for the country, the people, the culture, and of course French cuisine and wine. Moreover, I speak the language, albeit with a Yorkshire accent, which my French friends call ‘charmant’, and I have lived and worked in Paris. In spite of all that I still like them.
A year or so ago I wrote a big report for the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), entitled “Britain and France: A Dialogue of Decline”, which laid out the enduring principles which force the two countries to co-operate, whatever the short-term irritations. Put simply, the world is getting relatively bigger precisely because England and France are getting relatively smaller. Therefore, to influence the strategic environment, the strategic allies (America and Germany) and potential strategic adversaries, who shall remain nameless, England and France must work together.
However, for the two countries to work together they must also strive constantly to see the bigger picture. That will not be easy as there is much that will likely happen in the coming years to force London and Paris apart. In the defence realm England will shift back towards a maritime strategy, whilst France will retain a continental strategy. However, two political issues stand out – Scottish independence and French debt.
England’s estrangement with the European Union will likely grow, possibly to the point where England departs from the EU. There are those in Paris who harbour hopes that Scottish independence will reduce England’s standing in the world. In fact, if the 5 million Scots (yes, that is all of them, they just make a lot of noise) vote for independence they will simply be marginalising themselves as the Scottish GDP at $207bn is but a small part of Britain’s GDP of $2.25 trillion, and much of that figure is from oil and gas produced in Scottish waters. In such an event the English, the true power in the land, will do all they can to ensure the Scots are just that – marginalised.
The Scottish Nationalists seem to be under the mistaken belief that should they con their fellow Scots into voting for independence nothing much will change – it will. France will be tempted by memories of the 'auld alliance' but would be well-advised not to interfere. Forget all the Braveheart rubbish Alec Salmond is trotting out; William Wallace was ultimately crushed by Edward I, an English king. It was ever and will be ever thus and France's relationship with England is critical. Scotland will still have to follow England’s will whatever, although post-referendum we English will no longer have to pay for these nationalist irritants. Thankfully, my respect for the Scottish people is strong enough to believe that when faced with modern reality they will honour the canny pragmatism for which they are renowned and avoid Scotland becoming an irrelevant rock stuck onto northern England.
As the Euro strains (as it will) and France is finally forced to confront its debt in much the same way the English are confronting their own France will face real challenges, not least finding itself in the EU facing German power without the English. Equally, if Paris tries to defy economic gravity and spend its way out of crisis, which could happen if the Socialists are elected, French decline will only accelerate and ‘La France Forte’ will be but a memory. Either way the need for an alliance with England will only grow.
However, for the English and French relationship to work all the clutter of EU and independence politics must be put to one side as much as possible and a focus established on certain power fundamentals. First, England and France must seek a shared concept of Europe’s role in the world that goes beyond the EU institutions. Second, England and France must together retain sufficient diplomatic power to justify their respective seats on the UN Security Council. Third, England and France must together support each other to develop sufficient military power to both influence US security and defence policy, both through NATO and increasingly beyond. Fourth, England and France must retain sufficient military capabilities to be able to influence key adversaries and lead Europeans back from the strategic wilderness into which they have wandered. Fifth, the societies of both England and France share many of the same social, economic and cultural tensions, not to mention facing a very similar threat from violent Islamists. It is essential that the two countries strive to build an intelligence relationship founded on sufficient trust that it can survive the inevitable and occasional piece of political theatrics.
Whatever one might think of President Sarkozy the simple fact is that his world view is much closer to Cameron’s world view than that of Francois Hollande, his rival in ‘la Presidentielle’. Ed Milliband? I am not sure he has a world view. If Sarkozy loses, as seems likely, like it or not England and France will once again have to reinvent a strategic relationship that, let’s face it, does not come naturally. Therein lies the reason for today’s agreements – to tie England and France to each other in practical areas precisely so that the relationship survives whatever the coming politics throws at it.
The Scottish Nationalists want the independence referendum to be held in 2014 to coincide with the anniversary of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, an occasional Scottish victory. Far more important is 2015; the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt – “we few, we happy few…”.