The new Franco-British military agreements have been widely read not just as a reaction against sinking military budgets on both sides of the channel, but also a blueprint for articulating a new regional order. The Franco-British led intervention in Libya might actually offer a glimpse of the mechanics that will underpin this alternative system, but also of its shortcomings.
Through a system of enticements and incentives, Britain and France would co-opt other European countries to design a new system of hegemony in Europe. The geopolitical logic underpinning this ‘new’ system is to stave off a potential destructuring of Europe’s post war order – gravitating around the Low Countries – and reverse a potential eastwards shift of the fulcrum of European power. This design would ensure the preponderance of maritime power, through a British-French base in the rear assisted by a system of ‘bridgeheads’ and ‘stations’ in the Mediterranean, Baltic and the North European plain. The Iberian and Jutland peninsulas would play a particularly important role in this scheme, in their double geopolitical role of line of contention and launching pad for controlling the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas respectively. Connecting the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, Spain would therefore offer the first point of an infrastructure of power through the Mediterranean via Malta and Cyprus. Denmark would play a similar role in the Baltic, initiating a wider system that would lean on the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland and the southern Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Finally, a Polish bridgehead would play a vital role in the front line, providing this maritime-based system with a deep reach into the Eurasian peninsula.
For its adherents, this new European maritime design would have two main and inter-related aims. First, it would prevent an unsavoury balance of power from the east or south-east, be that in the form of a resurgent Russia, an increasingly confident Turkey or – chiefly – a potential German-Russian condominium. Second, it would exercise hegemony over the European Union’s surrounding seas and balance against the terrestrial power of Germany and Russia. Poland would be central to this scheme, as it would offer the key bridgehead breaking the continuity of the German-Russian condominium.
There are, however, several problems with this approach. The first one is that it assumes that France and Britain are of exactly the same mind and that they would be able to canvass the sufficient strength to command the European continent by themselves. This is a huge assumption, particularly when many of the countries they would have to co-opt have expressed time and again their preference to deal with the United States than with two countries they perceive to be Washington’s junior partners. A strong Franco-British push for leadership through co-option would no doubt lead other European powers to seek to strengthen their own bilateral relationships with the United States – not least as a means of strengthening their own position vis-à-vis a supposed Franco-British front. This quest for alliance diversification would also include flirtings with other European powers (many of these countries are notably dependent on Germany economically), as well as those beyond – such as China.
Secondly, the absence of the elephant in the room – Germany – is conspicuous. Indeed, underpinning many of these proposals for a new European security architecture is the assumption that Germany does not want to play ball, a fact illustrated by its attitude towards the Libya crisis and its reluctance to continue to underwrite European economic integration. However, a Franco-British front may not overcome Germany’s reluctance to use force; indeed, it could actually strengthen the hand of ‘revisionism’ within Germany and accelerate a German rapprochement with Russia. And a German-Russian condominium could canvass as much power (if not more) as a Franco-British one. This is particularly the case if such a partnership were supported – whether permanently or intermittently – by countries such as Italy. This leads in to the main point: French-British hegemony can only work if supported in the rear by the United States.
Only if supported by Washington (diplomatically and militarily) will Britain and France swing the balance in Europe and its wider neighbourhoods – as can be seen in the case of Libya. Only when leaning on the United States will Britain and France aspire to maintain a strong military industrial base (BAe Systems now does more business in the American market than it does in the British one, and Thales decided long ago that its success goes through inroads into the British and American defence markets). In other words, Franco-British co-opting can only work if France and Britain are themselves being co-opted by the United States.
But Washington will not be willing to back London and Paris in the way that it has previously. The United States will play a more indirect (but still decisive) role in European geopolitics, not least due to its growing commitments in the eastern half of Eurasia. Because of its offshore geopolitical position, its more geographically disperse economy and its ‘special relationship’ with America, Britain would continue to be the decisive factor of a renewed maritime European system. Britain would have more influence and power than France, which remains more dependent on Germany – particularly in the economic realm. Paris, of course, is well aware of this fact. This is why France will only go so far in embracing the new maritime system and will try to navigate its ‘new’ special relationship with the British with its ‘old’ German connexion, much as it has always done.
The point being that unless Britain, France and Germany manage to bridge their differences and find a way to work together through the European Union, the stability of Europe and that of its broader neighbourhood will not be guaranteed, nor will Europeans be able to constitute a strong and autonomous pole of power in the twenty-first century.