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Commentary: Make-or-Break Year for a Partnership

2014 May Show If France, UK Are Serious

Jan. 27, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By CLAIRE CHICK   |   Comments
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Is the new Franco-British order in defense to be taken seriously?

Just a few days from the 2014 bilateral summit, the stakes are high on both sides of the English Channel. France and Britain have to show a great deal of determination to give credit to the challenging defense partnership.

Seen from the continent, the aptitude of the British to hide behind a phlegmatic mask has always been disconcerting. And yet three years ago, they were the ones — with one eye on the 1963 French-German Elysée treaty and the other on the French-British Saint Malo agreements — who persuaded France to sign a legally binding security pact. Since then, pragmatism has flourished and the French have had to admit they have much to learn from their partner.

But it is not a natural partnership. In the matter of defense, of course, the cross-channel link is nothing new. In 1947 and 1948, the two allies signed and re-signed security treaties, up until that fateful day in 1954 when the prime minister persuaded his French counterpart to align Europe with the alliance to rearm Germany.

Later, in the 1960s, their cooperation in military aeronautics projected the image of a successful industrial entente. But even though their defense is based on comparable data, the Franco-British partnership should never be taken for granted.

Tea for Two

With the Lancaster House treaties, the willingness of the two heads of state and government to cooperate is seen as a powerful aspect of the bilateral relationship. The rope cast over the English Channel remains taut and the 2013 accord de principe on the Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapon was indicative of a commitment that is above all political, itself adapted to the operational plan by the increased power of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force.

Interestingly, with the prospect of the December EU Council, Whitehall civil servants came out of the woodwork to work side by side with their French colleagues, and historically, it was legitimate to accord credit to this joint preparatory work. When France has worked on the accountability of Europe’s security, either alone or with Germany, the failure of its initiatives has been crushing.

Hence France’s Foreign Minister Michel Jobert in 1973 finally gave up trying to give Europe “one voice and one face;” hence the Franco-German relationship that raised the specter of trans-Atlantic decoupling, but both countries found themselves powerless in the cold light of the Old Continent’s identity wars.

Conversely, when the French and British tied the cooperation knot in numerous locations, from Chartres to Saint Malo, via Tidworth and through Kosovo, they paved the way for the future Common Security and Defence Policy. In 2009, France’s return to the fold of NATO’s integrated military command lifted the latch to the development of a joint EU comprehensive approach, possibly on the African continent.

Missed Approach in Brussels

But on Christmas Eve, things turned out differently. The British insisted on developing European capabilities in direct cooperation with EU partners, but the French, with the publication of a white paper, the setting up of an operational headquarters and the appointment of a European defense minister, continued its emphasis on broad institutional improvements in the EU.

Equipment was certainly at the center of their disagreement; and the British and the European Defence Agency, the British and the European Air Transport Command, the British and the Defence Industrial and Technological Base were all divisive issues. Any new “European” item became an irritant in the UK and, as France was asking for a permanent EU defense fund, the UK Cabinet responded by exerting pressure to remove from the final communiqué the “European strategic autonomy” cherished by the French.

Decision Makers To Be Tested

Expectations were certainly too high that the December EU Council could remedy in two days the chronically broken defense of the EU. But this consideration does not make the perspective of a suc­cessful bilateral summit easier.

First, domestic policy and politics in the UK are strongly impacting the bilateral relationship and might do so for the next 18 months. And the current impression is that if there is a window of opportunity for decision-making in 2014, it might well be in the process of closing down.

David Cameron is already on the campaign trail for general elections, facing strong pressure from the right wing of his own party to save conservative votes from the rising United Kingdom Independence Party. It is in that context he has to work with the French socialist president who makes the case for Europe on a daily basis.

Second, France agreed on capitalizing on the pragmatism resulting from the 2010 agreements, but will not drop its ambition of balanced concessions in industry, on the Future Combat Air System dossier, for instance. For now, easy stigmatization pollutes the partnership and personal chemistries tend to fade away.

No Franco-British summit took place in 2013. But in 2014 there is a risk to end up with a flat catch-up exercise although both partners know that the time for decisions has come.

To be continued. ■

Claire Chick, head of the Franco British Council Defence Conference.

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