The Future of British and French Defence Cooperation

Zachary Barker - Assistant Editor

Photograph: NASA

“France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defense, foreign, financial and economic policies. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France.”

Preface of the Franco-British Union pledge

For much of France and Britain’s history, the two countries have been bad neighbours.  Regional rivalries and religious differences have helped to fuel centuries of warfare between the two powers.  These have spanned from wars confined to the two countries to ones that have led to fierce fights all over the world during the Napoleonic Wars.  Time and a radical change in European power relations did much to improve Anglo-French relations, leading British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make France an extraordinary offer to that country during World War Two.  When France was on the brink of falling to Nazi Germany, Churchill offered a Franco-British Union, which would have essentially unified the two countries into one.  It is still debated among historians about whether this was a serious offer or an ostentatious expression of how much Churchill wanted France to stay in the fight against Germany.

In recent years France and the UK have chosen to stick together in a less dramatic but nonetheless constructive way.  On 2nd November 2010 France and the UK signed two defense co-operation treaties known as the Lancaster House Treaties.  These treaties outlined several commitments including; a commitment to sharing aircraft carriers, creating a 1000-strong joint reaction force, the creation of a joint nuclear simulation centre in France, joint nuclear research centre in the UK, the sharing of air-refueling tankers and a commitment to joint training.  Additionally as part of these treaties the two countries made a commitment to cooperate in the field of counter-terrorism and also a signed a letter of intent to cooperate in the field of military operations.

The development of British and French defense cooperation is vital in today’s security environment.  France and Britain today are the only two serious military players in Europe.  Both countries meet the 2% of GDP NATO defense spending commitment and both have highly experienced armed forces with credible power projection capabilities. Germany is a potential big player in terms of hard power but to it’s detriment keeps defence spending to a minimum, both due to it’s controversial history and a German public skeptical of a greater commitment to military matters.  Germany encapsulates very well the self-made dilemma the European Union (EU) is in when it comes to defence matters.  Much of the EU’s commitment to defence matters exists on paper only with a few limited military missions being the exception.

France and the UK as the only European countries capable of fielding serious expeditionary forces have many opportunities open to them with the signing of these agreements.  Both of the country’s armed forces have a wealth of field experience to share with each other.  France’s recent intervention in Mali, Operation Serval, against Islamist fighters was a good showcase of what the French armed forces are capable of.  Commentators complimented the intervention as being quick, expert in it’s inter-service cooperation and ultimately successful in meeting it’s objectives.  The UK contributed to the aftermath of this operation too with modest logistical help, providing a preview of what future British-French defense cooperation can achieve.

Operation Serval also touched on a common security concern of both the UK and France; Jihadist terrorism.  North and West Africa in particular are regions that much of the West views with great concern with regards to this type of terrorism.  Whereas places like Morocco and Algeria have long had problems with Jihadist terrorism, the blow-back from the Libyan Civil War has helped spread this scourge across much of the region.  The upsurge of this kind of terrorism in West Africa has led France to commit itself to a long term troop deployment in it’s former colonies such as the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso in an operation designated Operation Barkhane.  The Islamic State emerging in Libya presents a potent opportunity for Britain and France to finish the job they have started and restore stability to that country.

The Anglo-French defense cooperation treaties open up many doors to how the two nations pursue their individual defense commitments.  Dr Julian Lindley-French in his book on the future of Britain’s armed forces “Little Britain” suggested that they may open up the way for both nations to specialise their armies in different ways, leaving the other to specialise in capabilities that the other one is lacking in.  In this way defense spending for both countries can be made much more efficient.  Dr Lindley-French pointed out the danger of the British Government trying to make the armed forces the “jack of all trades” and so consequently the master of none.

At the end of the Second World War, Churchill eyed the new power relations in the post-war world cautiously during the discussions that preceded the creation of the United Nations.  When considering the creation of a UN Security Council with a group of permanent members he insisted that France should be included, privately he considered it’s use to Britain as a fellow power interested in European affairs and a potential counter to American power.  Many would argue that France has been an inconsistent ally since then, with De Gaulle’s veto of British entry into the European Economic Community coming not too long after the war.  Somewhat ironically it was the Suez Crisis, the event seen as the start of decline of British power, when it became evident that the two countries had interests in common.  But that was the past.  What is remarkable today is how closely France and Britain’s security interests are aligned.

Britain and France have to band together and help argue the case for committing to a serious European hard power capability.  To this end both countries need to buck the trend that many academics are promoting; to over-estimate the value of soft power as a substitute for soft power.  Soft power has it’s place but hard power will retain it’s importance for a long time.  Britain, with France re-entering the NATO military command structure, has an important opportunity to persuade them to have a shared vision of both the EU and NATO’s security concerns.  The EU has an important role to play in terms of transnational crime, terrorism and migration related security concerns.  However when it comes to bigger security concerns, such as dealing with seeing off military challenges from other states, NATO’s role is indispensable.  France has never been as comfortable with NATO as Britain, so hopefully the UK can use the defence partnership to persuade France to consider committing more to the alliance.

France and Britain have not always agreed on certain issues, but the security interests of both countries are broadly similar.  Both are committed to the fall of the Islamic State.  Both too are concerned about Russia’s recent belligerent activities.  Now Brexit is a near certainty, the UK will have to rely on bilateral relationships more and more.  Having a close relationship with France as a central member of the EU and one of the most capable military powers in Europe is indispensable to the UK.

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles

Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol’s Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1