international analysis and commentary

The Franco-British defense agreement: a new St. Malo?

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“Today, we have decided to intensify our co-operation still further. We want to enable our forces to operate together, to maximize our capabilities and to obtain greater value for money from our investment in defense.  We plan to increase the range and ambition of our joint defense equipment programs, and to foster closer industrial co-operation”.   -UK-France Summit Declaration, November 2, 2010  

At the Franco-British Summit of November 2, 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to promote co-operation between British and French armed forces and enhance the sharing of facilities and equipment to strengthen the respective defense-industrial bases of the two countries. An agreement was also reached to collaborate over nuclear stockpile stewardship. Are the Franco-British Defense and Security Cooperation Treaty and the associated Downing Street Declaration a new dawn in Anglo-French relations? Is it simply another step in a competitive game to lead Europe? Or is it a new St. Malo (after the 1998 bilateral agreement open to the other EU member states) that will add impetus to the Common Security and Defense Policy and bring Europe out of the great European defense depression?

It may seem strange that London and Paris have once again launched the search for a new Entente Cordiale. By any measure of power Britain and France are in relative and parallel decline. Their levers of power both in Europe and the wider world are weakening, their key partnerships are fading, and their influence is waning. Strategy, however, is ultimately the preserve of the relatively weak and strategic logic alone is driving Britain and France together.  Indeed, given the British Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), which cut 8% off the defense budget and France’s recent decision to cut 3 billion euros off its defense budget, if influence is to be maintained over allies, adversaries, institutions and events, it was clear to both that something radical had to be done. 

In 1998 the St. Malo Declaration, which laid the foundation for the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), demonstrated that whilst the idea of an EU better able to manage all aspects of external policies was ready, the politics was not. And then came the Iraq war which broke the accord wide open. Much has changed since 1998 and for Britain and France little for the better, as their power and influence over events have drained rapidly. Therefore, a new pragmatic agenda is now needed to rekindle a profoundly strategic relationship that will probably never be truly warm, but which is as vital for Europe in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century.  

Furthermore, given the centrality of Europe to the national security and defense strategies of both countries, action also had to be taken to ease the great European defense depression. In a sense, other Europeans, through their defense delinquency, thrust leadership upon Britain and France.  For instance, NATO European member-states spend some 188 billion euros per year on defense (approximately 37% of what the US spends). Of that Britain and France together represent 43% or 110.2 billion euros, whilst France, Germany and the UK represent 61%. Moreover, the so-called ‘big three’ spend 88% of all defense research and development funding in NATO Europe.  Critically, sixteen of the twenty-six NATO European members spend less than $5 billion dollars per annum and much of this is inefficiently spent. Ratios between personnel and equipment budgets are particularly obverse, there are too many bloated headquarters and there are top-heavy command chains with outdated training. 

Therefore, besides all the talk of cost-effectiveness, the Franco-British Treaty must be seen within the context of a Europe searching for a new place in both the transatlantic relationship and the wider world. Coincidental with the NATO Strategic Concept and one year after the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, if sufficient confidence and trust emerge over time then it would be implicit in the treaty that the eventual creation of a new European pillar would be better able to serve both NATO and the EU. Indeed, whilst the cost-saving, defense-industrial aspects of the agreement point towards a new balance between strategy and affordability (the synergistic essence of the partnership), the treaty ultimately reflects the cold, hard strategic logic of two old powers who understand the most critical of commodities – influence.

It is not the first time Britain and France have been forced to cohabitate in a shrinking strategic space. The 1904 Entente Cordiale came not as a natural partnership but rather because both London and Paris recognized that the assumptions of the 19th century could no longer be relied upon for security and influence. In 1940, partnership was so desperately needed that even a union of the two countries was momentarily proposed. New realities had to be gripped then as now and mutual mistrust and often deliberate and obstinate mutual miscomprehension had to be overcome to build a new relationship. 

The alternative is clear. The last decade has been bruising for both Britain and France. London has lost influence in Washington and critically Paris has lost influence over Berlin. To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, Britain and France are in danger of becoming small countries far away from the center of power about which they know little, locked as they are in a parochial struggle for the leadership of the irrelevant. 

It is not all sweetness and light. The exclusion of Britain from the recent Deauville meeting between France, Germany and Russia to discuss future European security architecture caused offense in London. The timing suggested that once again Paris was trying to recreate a cobweb strategy of important bilateral links with France at the center. London has stopped this before and would do so again if the French pursued such a goal, as Berlin, London and Rome do talk to each other. 

Is this a new St. Malo or simply another brick on the road to the Potemkin Village that European defense is fast becoming? Only time will tell, but what is clear is that without a close strategic relationship between Britain and France, Europe’s retreat from reality will only accelerate.