Alphen, Netherlands. 11 August. It seems apt in this year of all years, the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, to quote Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand was one-time French royalist, one-time Napoleon’s foreign minister, one-time French ambassador to London and perhaps the most skilled and cynical diplomat at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Talleyrand famously said that one is, “….never as far away from the target, as when you do not know where you’re going”. Were he around today he would probably have said the same about Europe in a world awash with dangerous change. Critically, whatever the mutual irritations and at times contempt London and Paris feel for each other the two old Powers must uphold together Realist strategic principles of power and influence.
It will not be easy. Indeed, all the ingredients exist for one of those tetchy and difficult periods in Franco-British relations which come along as regularly as the Bateaux Mouches on the summer Seine. The Calais migrant crisis has once again opened up various fissures and the hackneyed clichés of mistrust into which the relationship still has a propensity to tumble. Such tensions are exacerbated by the contrasting politics of the two countries. Britain is led by a Conservative administration committed (or so it claims) to austerity. France is led by a Socialist administration committed to precisely the opposite. Worse, Francois Hollande and David Cameron simply do not like each other. Consequently, the last Franco-British ‘summit’ was reduced to a rather forced photo op in an Oxfordshire pub – the inebriate discussing indifferently the irrelevant?
Furthermore, on the face of it at least London and Paris take very different views about the future direction of the EU. President Hollande is pushing Germany hard to introduce Eurobonds and with them the mutualisation of Eurozone debt. Such a step would necessarily drive deeper Eurozone integration and with the further marginalisation of Britain within the EU. With a Brexit vote just around a corner France seems to show no signs of yielding to any of Cameron’s calls for EU reform. Worse, at least some of Hollandes’ closest allies seem to actively welcome the prospect of a British EU exit, even though it is hard to see how such a departure is in France’s best strategic interest. Indeed, even if Britain does depart an unreformed EU somehow the strategic partnership with France will need to be protected from the inevitable political fall-out.
There are some limited grounds for optimism. Behind all the Euro-speak power still courses through the veins of the European body politic in much the same way Talleyrand would have understood and indeed made use of. For all France’s pretentions to want ‘ever closer political union’ the French people have no great desire to see French distinctiveness subsumed by some all-subsuming European super-state. Moreover, whilst contemporary Germany sees itself (and by and large acts) as a community champion Berlin’s economic power now dwarfs that of France. Consequently, the original idea of the Single Currency as a framework within which to embed and thus constrain a re-united Germany has failed from a French policy perspective. Even Berlin sees the Franco-British strategic relationship as an essential counterweight to its own power and thus crucial to a legitimate European political balance.
Specifically, the need to underpin ‘European’ influence with hard, credible twenty-first century military power remains the strongest imperative for London and Paris to maintain a close strategic relationship. France dresses up such initiatives as the Common Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) as a vital step on the road to what General de Gaulle once called the “third force”. Britain inevitably sees such initiatives as a vital component in a stronger US-friendly European pillar of NATO. Whatever the political packaging the pressing strategic need for Europeans to engage more effectively in major, complex crisis prevention and management is undoubted. And, such influence will only happen with Britain and France together at the core of much-needed European strategic renovation. That was the goal of the 1998 St Malo Declaration and the 2010 Franco-British Security and Defence Treaty but due to ‘distractions’ has not happened.
Talleyrand once said that the “…art of statesmanship was to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence”. If those charged with power in both London and Paris properly understand the scale of change underway and agree where they need to go they will also recognise that for all the differences of style and emphasis Britain and France will and must remain strategic partners. Ironically, this is something Talleyrand himself believed.
Therefore, it falls to London and Paris to act together to drive forward a distinctly European big picture understanding of the nature and scale of the momentous change that is underway. Indeed, with illiberal power challenging liberal power in many domains Britain and France must act as the strategic conscience of Europe. Fail and all the current focus with the internal structure of the EU will soon come to seem like misplaced and irrelevant self-obsession.
Britain and France somehow have to hang together for if not they will each hang separately and the rest of Europe with them. To paraphrase Talleyrand; strategy is far too serious a business to be left to the politicians but it is to the politicians that strategy is ultimately left.