“…for neither Britain nor France can there be any nostalgic attachment to past structure and relationships in the pursuit of influence. While the financial case for a renewed and intensified partnership is clear, the political and strategic imperatives on both sides of the Channel are less so”.
Julian Lindley-French, Britain and France: A Dialogue of Decline? Chatham House, December 2010
Perfidy all round?
Alphen, Netherlands. 25 September. Last week was one of THOSE weeks in the ever-sensitive Franco-British strategic partnership. As Prime Minister May typically bungled her Salzburg Brexit ‘Sound of Hubris all round’ von Crapp-shoot French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to relish his role as leader of the EU punishment lynch mob. Indeed, he came very close to insulting all of the British people with a Gallic relish that Charles de Gaulle would have been proud of. Less Jupiter, more Napoleon. At exactly the same time in London, the annual Franco-British Defence Conference took place blithely implying that the political fracas in Salzburg will have no impact on the vital Franco-British strategic partnership. Frankly, London and Paris are deluding themselves.
Scroll back eight years to 2 November 2010. Lancaster House, Central London. Amid the usual pomp and circumstance surrounding Franco-British summits, British Prime Minister David Cameron (remember him?) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy met to put pen to a new Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty which committed Europe’s strongest military powers to the pooling and sharing of military equipment. Protocols to the treaty included a Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship agreement to help preserve the reliability and credibility of the two countries’ respective independent nuclear deterrents. An agreement was also reached on closer operational ties between the British and French armed forces and deeper cooperation between the two countries’ advanced defence and technological ‘bases’.
The centrepiece of the ‘Lancaster House Agreement’ was the formation of a new high-end, deployable, expeditionary force called the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force or CJEF. Yesterday in The Times, the new British Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, tried to defy political gravity by pretending politics and strategy were somehow distinct. In an article entitled Old Alliance is Key to Meeting Modern Threats Carter wrote that “…we must take our alliance to the next level: our collective security and stability depend on it”. In strategic terms, Carter’s call makes perfect sense…but.
The Franco-British (sort of) strategic partnership
In June 1998, six months before the landmark Franco-British St Malo Declaration, I published in New Statesman what many regard as one of my most influential articles. Time to Bite the Eurobullet called for a close Franco-British strategic partnership as the basis for a revitalised European security and defence structure which, whilst focussed on the EU, would be NATO-friendly and open to others outside the Union. The idea that France and Britain together should form the expeditionary military power core of a renewed European defence effort is still something in which I believe deeply and passionately and informed my work during my years in Paris as a Senior Fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies.
Critically, with coalitions of the willing and able ever more to the fore of organised European military deployability, there will be occasions when the ability to run ‘ops’ under an EU or non-NATO, non-US flag will be needed. Having the option to communicate effectively a specifically European strategic identity during complex operations could help better realise the legitimate European political objectives any use of force must serve. Clearly, President Macron also shares this vision. Indeed, it is why Macron created the European Intervention Initiative and called for the creation of a force that was outside of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy or CSDP.
Carter also went on to write, “The strength in any military alliance is built on mutual trust and respect that can only be fostered through a long history of close collaboration. Our relationship with France is built on more than a century of our militaries joining forces to defend our people and uphold our values. Well, Sir Nick, all well and good. However, as a historian of the Franco-British strategic partnership since the April 1904 Entente Cordiale let me tell you there have been times over the past 114 years when the ‘entente’ was distinctly less than ‘cordiale’. My fear is that we are about to enter another of such rocky period in the interminable Franco-British love-hate relationship.
The political threats to a strategic partnership.
There are two political threats to Carter’s vision of moving Franco-British defence co-operation onto a higher level. The first is that President Macron will overplay his Brexit punishment of Britain. The second is that further defence cuts in Britain will at the same (critical) time further reduce the importance and value of Britain as a strategic partner.
President Macron is certainly in danger of overplaying his Brexit hand. If Paris (and others) somehow managed to force Brexit into a retreat do the French really think that a Britain full of people who believe they have been ‘screwed’ by Europe with France to the fore would be happy about a deeper strategic partnership? No, the challenge for all concerned in the Brexit negotiations must somehow be even at this late stage to craft a deal that peoples on both sides accept as reasonably fair. If not the toxic politics of Brexit will certainly undermine the Franco-British strategic partnership.
Why anti-French venom? The post-March 2019 Brexit flashpoint will inevitably be at Calais, Dover and other British and French ‘entrepots’. Given the appalling failure of the British Government to properly prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit it could well be that significant disruption takes place to travel and trade in 2019. Paris it seems is quite keen to see that happen ‘pour encourager les autres’ a la Voltaire, Candide and Byng! Given that French airspace is critical to a lot of air travel out of Britain it will be France who is blamed. What price a Franco-British strategic partnership then?
And then there are the further defence cuts planned in Britain. British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has failed to secure more real funding from the strategically tin-eared Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond. The result is that the Ministry of Defence has now to find a further £20bn plus of savings. This means a further retreat from the ‘minimum’ future force agreed in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review or SDSR. God knows what will be left of the British future force in the 2020 SDSR? Floating sitting ducks?
More cuts will further undermine Britain’s wider strategic influence at a critical moment. One of the failings of the entire Lancaster House process has been the contrasting ambitions and expectations invested by both sides in the effort. Back at St Malo, I saw how much strategic capital France wanted to invest in the process. To be fair, then Prime Minister Tony Blair was also prepared to invest significant capital in the strategic partnership until American concerns and the 2003 Iraq War intervened. For David Cameron in 2010 Lancaster House was simply one way of offsetting some of the damage his own government had done to the defence of Britain in the unbalanced and frankly panicky SDSR 2010. What value a Franco-British strategic partnership now?
Britain and France MUST (somehow) hang together…
For me, the great tragedy of Brexit is the extent to which it has undermined Britain’s strategic partnerships, which is why I campaigned against it in spite of my grave concerns about over-concentrating power in Brussels and the threat to meaningful democracy the EU represents. Worse, compounded by strategically-blind post-financial crash policies Britain, and much of the rest of Europe, have turned inwards at a time when external threats to the EU and NATO have grown exponentially.
The Franco-British strategic partnership has always been, and always will be, subject to the complex and too often toxic politics within and history between the two countries. If Sir Nick Carter believes otherwise he is being poorly advised or simply living in strategic la-la land. And yet, the partnership remains vital not just for the stability of Europe, but its defence. Why? The Americans are going to be stretched thin the world-over by China and Russia. German is as yet still strategically-incapable. That leaves Britain and France still at the heart of any effort that might lead to Europeans doing serious European defence as Europeans. Britain and France are providing back-bone battlegroups for NATO’s forward defence of the Baltic States. Last week British and French fighters were scrambled to meet a force of Russian nuclear-armed bombers who appeared unannounced in the North Sea.
One can only hope Lancaster House and its successor agreements will survive Brexit and British defence cuts. This is because, like it or not, Britain and France MUST hang together…or at some point, they will hang separately as they embark on a dialogue of terminal decline.