Last week some of you will have read (hopefully) my blog E.U.S.E.L.E.S.S? The blog questioned the practicality of President Macron’s plans for deeper European defence integration twenty years on from the St Malo Declaration. In the wake of the blog, a very senior French friend and colleague of many year’s standing challenged my thinking in his usual insightful and balanced way. I am not at liberty to publish his emails but below is an edited precis of the two responses I offered which expand on my thinking about the role of Europeans in their own defence and the future of a necessarily adapted post-Brexit transatlantic relationship.
Forgive my tardy response to your, as ever, considered reflections. Let me cut straight to the chase. You are right that Europeans have common interests as you are right that the UK has at times been a brake on French and other ambitions for deeper European defence integration. That said, St Malo was always an exercise in studied ambiguity. The British made it perfectly clear on HMS Birmingham twenty years ago that they did not share the political ambitions of President Chirac for the then European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). That France talked up St Malo was both France's right and responsibility at one and the same time. Moreover, I also accept that President Macron is seeking deeper European defence co-operation rather than integration per se, although the language he employs is the stuff of European integration. As for the stuff about President Trump and the US, I just ignored it.
Still, I stand by my realistic (as opposed to conservative) analysis; we have been here so many times before. Yes, France has ambitions for a European force but few others share that ambition. Critically, Germany does not which means that in spite of some soothing words from Berlin NOTHING much will happen...AGAIN!
At the same time, Paris seems to live in a strange fantasy that it can aggressively seek to damage Britain over Brexit but still preserve the substance rather than the appearance of the Franco-British strategic partnership. Dream on, my friend. Without France and Britain in the lead together there is no chance of a 'European defence' being generated that has more warriors than words. And, no chance whatsoever of President Macron's ambitions being realised, especially if such ambitions are presented as, or implied as being, an anti-British French démarche. For example, the Dutch have made that perfectly clear to me.
There is also a chance that France will end up isolated by this game. Senior Americans have made it perfectly clear to me that Washington will back London. Unless Berlin backs Paris beyond soothing words the danger is that France will be left out of the power game that is always the real essence of European defence. With friendship and respect, I think the mistake you make is to see defence integration as a step on the road to political union. If it is EVER going to happen defence integration can only come as a consequence of political union and we are a very long way from that.
What we need is a European military capability that can act as an effective first responder in and around Europe across a spectrum of threats. Indeed, the security and defence guarantee afforded by an over-stretched America can only be credibly afforded if we Europeans do far more JOINTLY together from tail to teeth. Unless PESCO, the European Intervention Initiative (EII) et al are going to make a real contribution to resolving that pressing conundrum they are little more than political distractions at a time of strategic danger if they offer no real, substantive increase in and improvement to European military capabilities. Worse, once again another bout of this endless and pointless 'European Army' debate enables free riders to free ride and the strategically-illiterate to hide behind false dreams. It is a merry-go-round of strategic irresponsibility at a time when Europeans can ill afford such petits fours luxuries that in reality keep the debate on the future of defending Europe frozen at the level of political inputs rather than the defence outcomes we Europeans desperately need to generate.
So, my challenge to you as a Briton is thus: OK France if you believe you can deliver a European force sufficiently able, capable and usable in time then be my guest. Show us the way. After all, we have been here before and nothing much has happened, other than Britain has been blamed when it has not worked out. After all, Britain is leaving the EU and now is your chance. I am not holding my breath as I am fully aware the real reason why there has been so little progress towards deeper European defence integration is that there is no shared strategic culture upon which to base it.
Which brings me to France and Britain. Given the threats that are emerging around us I have been pushing hard for the maintenance of post-Brexit vital relationships, with the Franco-British strategic partnership to fore. As you know, it is a partnership in which I profoundly believe with a France that I continue to see as a firm friend. Still, my expert perception is that France is seeking to exploit Britain's current difficulties with President Macron often taking the hardest of stances against Britain. Faced with such intransigence I will defend my country even though I am deeply saddened by what has happened. You and I are both historians and you know how ready we English are to respond to a French challenge, and vice versa. So, let's not go there. We are friends not enemies.
My simple position (and I have stated this publicly to senior Americans) is that it is time for Europeans to become less dependent on the US and that it is also in the American interest that Europeans become more strategically autonomous. Here, I am in full agreement with President Macron. My frustration is I suspect shared by my many French friends and concerns the need to get on with the development of such a capability that by definition would need to include Britain. The hard truth is that the main cause of European dependence on the US is the inability of Europeans to defend themselves. End such dependence through the procurement of relevant capability at a sufficiency of capacity and strategic autonomy will be a natural by-product.
It will not come cheap. Having looked into the nature, scope and cost of 'strategic autonomy' my assessment is that to replace the 'public good' implicitly and concretely provided by US, and to a far lesser extent by the UK, and without further weakening the current NATO-centric defence (key point), would require at least 3% GDP expenditure on defence per annum. France and Germany, as leaders, would quite possibly be required to spend up to 4% to set up a properly strategic and expensive European état-major (HQ). Now, that could be spent enhancing the EUMS (EU Military Staff) or jointly. My strong belief is that in the first instance such investments would need to be spent jointly as only over time could the invested structures evolve into a 'défense commune'.
Which brings me to what might seem at present to be a paradoxical proposal for a deeper Franco-British strategic partnership. First, European 'strategic autonomy' of any credibility rests for the time being on the Franco-British strategic partnership holding firm in spite of Brexit. Second, France should now propose a deepening of that relationship (it was never an EU dependent relationship) the moment Britain formally withdraws on 29 March 2019. The Mediocracy who run Britain simply cannot afford to look anymore needy than they already are by approaching France with a defence begging bowl. Third, Britain should seek a formal and complete relationship as part of the above initiative with President Macron's EII with France’s strong backing.
In a sense, such an approach would re-create the St Malo, Cologne Summit, Helsinki Declaration dynamic of 1998-1999. Back then we collectively committed to the formation of a 60,000 strong European Rapid Reaction Force of sufficient mass and manoeuvre to give St Malo some defence weight. The creation of such a force as a concrete output of PESCO, EII and all the other acronyms with which European defence is so burdened would remind everyone involved in the sorry saga that is Brexit that we are friends, allies and partners. And, that Brexit is a second order issue when it comes to the very dangerous 'First Order World' into which we Europeans are headed, with many of the most dangerous ‘bits’ being in Europe's strategic neighbourhood.
To conclude, we need the pragmatic rebuilding of European military power under Franco-British leadership. If WE don't do it no-one else will. In time, the non-British bit that emerges might lead to some form of European defence integration that could in future form the European pillar of an adapted Alliance with the UK part of an Americo/Anglosphere within the framework of the Alliance. With ‘Five Eyes’ ever more important as a strategic coalition I would suggest to you that is already happening, at least in part.
Britain is already withdrawing from the defence of Europe, whatever the political rhetoric to the contrary. If one looks at where the bulk of Britain's capital defence investment is going it is not to build a continental army. Indeed, the British Army of today is smaller than the Old Contemptibles of 1914! The bulk of the investment is going in US-friendly maritime/amphibious/air power projection assets such as Queen Elizabeth class heavy aircraft carriers, F35 Lightning 2 aircraft, Astute class nuclear hunter-killers, Type 26 and 31 destroyers and frigates and Dreadnought class nuclear ballistic missile subs). This is not to mention Britain’s world-class intelligence assets which the rest of Europe cannot do without and which is an unspoken (and often typically unacknowledged) British contribution to European security. In other words, there is a real danger that France and the rest of the Continent will effectively lose Britain from its defence whatever the Mediocracy in London say. Do you want that? If you do then so be it. The hard line taken against Britain’s access to Galileo is both a sign and legalistic nonsense for which you will pay a strategic price.
I will, of course, let you know when I am next in Paris as dining together would be a delight!