Yesterday, the British and French leaders signed two historic and potentially far-reaching military treaties, paving the way for half a century of tighter Franco-British cooperation. As Nick Witney, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has pointed out, this represents a ‘strategic rubicon’, which could decide whether or not ‘European nations and the European Union as a whole can keep a seat in the global game, or find themselves progressively elbowed aside by newer, wealthier and more confident players.’
- Britain and France have declared their intention to collaborate with the design and testing of nuclear weapons. A new nuclear research centre will be built at Aldermaston in Britain, while France’s hydrodynamics testing laboratory in Valduc will be expanded to test both power’s weapons.
- Britain and France will pursue a common nuclear submarine design. Whether or not this will lead to the development of an integrated Franco-British nuclear weapons system is still very unclear.
- Britain and France will operate two large aircraft carriers between them, and effectively rely on one another while each power’s carrier is in refit. Until Britain’s new carriers come online in 2019, France’s carrier will alone provide the means to project Franco-British influence overseas. Given that Britain’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, released last week, has pledged to equip the new carriers with electro-magnetic catapults and arrestor wires, British and French warplanes will now be able to fly from each other’s carriers.
- Britain and France will establish a division-size joint expeditionary force, including approximately 10,000 troops. While this force will not be a standing army – instead created when necessary from a designated pool of troops and equipment in each country – it will be commanded by a French or British officer, depending on the situation and task at hand. British and French troops will train together, with English being the exclusive means of communication.
- Britain and France will share training, resources and maintenance of the new A400M military transport aircraft and will work together to develop new military units and technology to remain in the vanguard of military innovation, including computer warfare technology, military satellites, unmanned spy and combat aircraft, and missile systems.
The interesting question, however, is why have the British come to see a renewed entente with France as a desirable politico-military option after so many years of lukewarm support? The most likely answer is that Britain’s change of heart is the result of a unique set of historical circumstances, some of which are actually – at least to some extent – incompatible with one another, but nevertheless ‘work’ due to geopolitical changes, political interests and financial necessities. Indeed, had the British voted differently in the general election in May 2010, returning Labour to power or voting more staunchly for the Conservatives, France and Britain’s new understanding may have never gotten off the ground, irrespective of Washington’s cooler attitude towards London or the financial difficulties faced by the British Treasury or Ministry of Defence.
The new approach may therefore be an outcome of Britain’s ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. On one level, the new Franco-British entente could simply be a cynical exercise on the part of the current Tory-led government to frustrate the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy, by co-opting France into a solid alliance with Britain – which, it may be hoped, will discourage Paris in its ongoing pursuit of a European military policy. This may be why many back-bench anti-European Tories have either supported (or at least not rejected) the proposals. For the pro-European Liberal Democrats in the coalition government, greater collaboration with the French opens the opportunity for entirely the opposite: weaning their country off its alliance with the United States by bringing France and Britain – still the world’s third and fourth strongest militaries – together as a potential springboard for greater European cooperation. For Thatcherite Tories, meanwhile, the new alliance offers financial opportunities to curtail costly military spending on new equipment, while for those Liberal Democrats more inclined to pacifism, it offers the potential to cut back on military spending altogether.
So what does this all mean? Militarily, from now on, Britain and France will at the very least rely even more closely on one another. If French interests were threatened in the Indian Ocean, for example, while the Charles de Gaulle was in drydock, Britain would be forced to provide its own carrier in support. For if Britain refused France access to its vessel, France could in turn refuse Britain use of its own carrier should British interests be threatened at some future date. So while both governments have stated that each will retain sovereign command over its own military, the new agreement will undoubtedly lead to path dependencies and a more synthesised threat assessment in London and Paris. The new entente will therefore require enhanced trust on the part of both powers.
As it stands, Franco-British military cooperation may temporarily frustrate the functional and geographical expansion of the Common Security and Defence Policy and a European Strategic Defence Review. However, in the longer term, careful French encouragement and guidance could lock Britain into a progressively more Europeanised military framework, especially if the entente proves fruitful for London. This could lead to a kind of ‘neo-Norman’ military Euro-core, around which the European Union’s other Member States could eventually muster. Poland, for example, is very keen to pursue greater European military integration during its presidency in 2011. This would be no bad thing. The Normans, after all, powered up the English and French states, contributing to their worldwide emergence and political, economic and military success. What the Normans did for Britain and France, Britain and France could do for the European Union.
Alternatively, London and Paris could get so frustrated by the lack of strategic resolve and military spending in most of the European Union’s other Member States – which continues to decline by the year – that they pursue progressively deeper and more exclusive bilateral integration, at the expense of the European enterprise. This would perhaps benefit Britain and France as the other Member States’ influence declined relative to the rise of consolidated Anglo-French power, but it would also represent a profound problem. For even if both were eventually integrated into a single state, with a unified military and command infrastructure – as has been proposed not once but twice in the past – Britain and France would not have the sufficient critical mass to engage as an equal in tomorrow’s world of multiple superpowers. In such a world, far from a future as neo-Normans, the two old warriors could face the fate of the Saxons, namely strategic eclipse and ruin.
- For further analysis, particularly for a Spanish perspective, please click here for a more detailed memorandum I co-authored with Luis Simón for Fundación Alternitivas.