As Europe’s defense leaders, Britain and France have wisely spent the past several years trying to deepen cooperation to allow each to remain globally relevant on ever-shrinking budgets.
But despite some major successes in maintaining nuclear weapons stockpiles, precision munitions, missiles and aircraft, the relationship has been characterized by frequent setbacks.
The two failed to cooperate on development of big-deck aircraft carriers, and there is evidence that differences in political philosophy in London and Paris are again fraying the relationship on the eve of the latest Anglo-French summit.
Bickering is increasing between the government of British conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his French Socialist counterpart François Hollande.
The latest Franco-British pact was crafted by Hollande’s conservative predecessor — Nicolas Sarkozy — and Cameron, men who shared with a far closer world view.
For centuries, France and Britain have had an acrimonious relationship. Normans may have conquered Anglo-Saxon Britain, but it was the English who regularly crossed the channel to win battles in France.
But the pair is unique in Europe as activist world powers willing to deploy forces globally to shape events — even when doing so isn’t necessarily popular at home.
Operational military cooperation is improving through extensive exchange tours and intensified training as the two seek to establish a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force.
As such, there are more reasons for the two to cooperate than not, including on industrial projects. These have proven more difficult as the two nations — despite industrial consolidation — continue to see one another as competitors.
Still, old habits die hard. Even the original location of the summit proved contentious.
It was slated to take place at Blenheim Palace, a gift to thank John Churchill for his role in beating French and Bavarian forces at Blenheim in 1704 and the birthplace of future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Paris objected and the venue was changed to nearby Brize Norton air base, where the two leaders will meet in the new hangar that houses the A330 tanker aircraft used by the Royal Air Force through a privately financed lease deal managed by Airbus.
The Airbus venue is symbolic of a successful European effort and a reminder of what the two can achieve with some political foresight and collaboration.
Given both Britain and France will be using the same aircraft for aerial refueling and that Europe is already trying to pool limited aerial refueling capabilities, it would be simple for the two nations to propose at least studying ways to cooperate.
The same goes for air transport, given the two will operate the A400M. The French are bringing an A400M to Brize.
Here, too, operational cooperation would add capability and save cost.
The two have overcome hurdles to work together to develop the Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy), a new helicopter-launched missile, where an announcement is expected at the summit.
The summit would also be an ideal opportunity for the two nations to show progress on jointly developing an unmanned combat aerial vehicle demonstrator.
The fact is, despite their problems, Europe’s two leading defense powers don’t have much choice when it comes to finding substitutes for each other in the region. Increased cooperation is their only answer. As such, it’s time to knock off the petty griping and get down to business. ■