Blog AnalysisEU Defense (Doctrine)

Between French and British: a cousin, not a couple

Fr. Holland and D. Cameron reviewing the British military at Brize Norton Base (credit: MOD UK)
Fr. Holland and D. Cameron reviewing the British military at Brize Norton Base (credit: MOD UK)

(BRUSSELS2) Once again, a French president and a British Prime Minister came together, on Friday, to celebrate the existence of a Franco-British “couple” which only exists in the spirit, not in facts. We could rather speak of a Franco-British “cousinage” than of a “couple”. We meet on various occasions, we love to have a drink or get excited about a good rugby match, or even go on vacation at some point. But that's all. No question of living together. In political terms, this translates into a summit from time to time, the signing of an industrial contract, “opportunity” convergences which only last for the moment of this opportunity.

A real cordial understanding

Historical and psychological proximity…

There are, however, a certain number of undeniable convergences between the French and the British, both historically and psychologically. First of all, there is the trace of history – with the presence of an ancient empire –; a certain impression of grandeur (past, more present among the British, than the French moreover, more realistic about their own capacity); a certain propensity to say “I” instead of we; to want to compete. The Six Nations tournament is therefore not as anecdotal as that. We like to compete every year, to show off our muscles, to each other, but also to others. Two “great” nations meet.

Sense of action

Then on the military level, the two countries share a certain “habit” of military “things”. The army and defense are part of a sort of national atavism, which does not give rise to enormous differences within the political parties. When the government (in Great Britain) or the President of the Republic (in France) decide to commit external forces, the criticism is not in the majority. Overseas intervention is a given in their international policy. The Minister of Defense – even if he is not often a leading figure – has a notable role within the government (which is rarely the case in other European countries). The understanding between the two armies is truly cordial because everyone on both sides of the Channel shares the same sense of action.

Convergence of views

This proximity is translated into concrete actions, whether in interventions or in international organizations, on both a political and economic level. Paris and London agreed on the intervention in Libya and shared, at least initially, the desire to establish a “no fly zone” in Syria. The two countries, which sit on the UN Security Council, have a common strategy within NATO. They defend nuclear power, a reduction in the NATO apparatus (which endangers certain States which have made the organization the alpha and omega of their defense), etc.

Budget weight

Finally, even if their budgets are decreasing, France and the United Kingdom share a clear desire (at least so far) to preserve a general range of military tools (land, air, sea, intelligence). Their “defense” budget is roughly similar (between 30 and 40 billion euros per year). And, even if it falls, together they still represent a good third of European defense budgets; an even clearer domination when we compare investments or research.

Europe… as a divider

But all this is not enough to characterize a couple and even less to influence Defense Europe. We had already written about it on this blog the day after the Lancaster House agreements. The British do not want to hear about Defense Europe (or even Europe at all)! Up close, far away, sideways…. Even more today than yesterday. From the top to the bottom of the ladder, the order was passed directly by David Cameron's cabinet to all the ministries, in particular the Ministry of Defense and that of Foreign Affairs, and this in writing. Defense Europe is “NO”.

A relentless logic

The statement of “10 Downing Street” is simple, and follows an implacable logic in three points.

1° The security of the United Kingdom – and of Europe – passes through NATO.

2° Europe can complete this action through humanitarian or development means.

3° The EU does not have to have its own capabilities or its own defense projects. Member States must keep control.

From this line of action comes another, more discreet instruction: do everything to block what could resemble, directly or indirectly, a European defense integration. We saw the exit of David Cameron at the last European summit. It looked like an electoral harangue (denouncing a project that had never been put on the table: the European army) and allowed the conservative Prime Minister to obviously emerge a winner (since the project did not exist). But it also had a more discreet objective, to serve as a marker for the Europeans, to prevent them from being too aggressive. The objective was doubly achieved.

Down to the smallest detail

This fear of seeing a “blue flag” adorning a British soldier is so extreme that in British army communications, the blue flag is often downplayed. So most often we will emphasize the bilateral or the international. This is the case with participation in the EU anti-piracy operation (EUNAVFOR) which boils down to being an “international” effort against piracy. The recent decoration of a British soldier by the British Chief of Staff bears witness to this (see here). It is necessary to look carefully in the official communication from the MOD (the British Ministry of Defence) that it was on European ground – that of the EUTM Mali operation, training the Malian army – that the decorated soldier officiated.

A regular blockage

London is not just about “communication”. On a daily basis, the British veto whenever they can. They block any additional budget for the European Defense Agency (even the simple taking into account of inflation). The same goes for the European HQ project which had nevertheless received everyone's approval. For each decision, even the most ordinary, concerning the CSDP (common security and defense policy) or foreign policy, they request consultation of their parliament, and therefore a short delay before approving the decision. They also blocked the project of stronger representation of the European Union at the international diplomatic level (UN, etc.)

Occupy key positions

Finally, the United Kingdom is trying to be present in a number of key positions in the European Diplomatic Service or the CSDP. London has thus presented – or is presenting – candidates for almost all the positions. Often excellent profiles from elsewhere who have real skills and deserve to be there. A way like any other to occupy the field and seize up the machine from the inside. In all European missions which have a strategic interest (Horn of Africa, Libya, etc.), the British are present, not automatically at the level of visible positions (head of mission) but often in a position of influence (political advisor, …) or very “concrete” feedback (in charge of contracts or calls for tenders…). It will therefore be interesting to observe what positions they will occupy in the future EUFOR RCA Bangui operation (even if London has publicly stated that it does not want to engage men on the ground).

The limits of British brilliance

A tactic that has reached a plateau

This blocking tactic has, so far, met with some success. But today we see its limits. And it should not be overestimated. Without being totally isolated, the British model is no longer really popular today in Europe. Because each country feels that the national interest lies elsewhere. In terms of defense, it is more interesting for a State to have another strategy. 1) Either work bilaterally with one's neighbors (Czechs with Slovaks, Balts and Nordics, Latins, etc.). 2) Or, if we care about transatlantic relations, establish links directly with the United States, without going through London. London's privileged transatlantic link with Washington is thus losing its value. 3) Either, when we cannot do otherwise, or there is an incentive (financial or industrial), work as Europeans. Often all three at the same time. The persistent British blockage to certain fairly concrete European projects, the lack of financial solidarity as a policy from London, is starting to seriously irritate. Especially since this blockage is truly ideological, without valid reason.

British power pales

Everyone also realizes that British “power” is beginning to fade. In recent European operations, whether in Georgia (observation mission), in Kosovo (“Rule of law” mission), in Chad (land military operation), in the Indian Ocean (anti-piracy) and tomorrow in Central African Republic (land military operation), British participation was often modest, and never essential. In other words, contrary to the adage often repeated by certain experts, we can function very well at European level without the British military. It is not only possible. But that's the reality. To this must be added a loss of operationality. Once the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been carried out, the British army will not really be present on much of the external terrain (apart from its land holdings: Falklands, Gibraltar, Cyprus, etc.). As for the British adage for action, it took a “blow” when Parliament voted “no” to intervention in Syria. On that day, the United Kingdom joined the common people of Europe, the principle is non-intervention.

One couple, one couple

Finally, at the European level, even in terms of defense, there remains only one “couple”. Despite all the differences and divergences, lasting cooperation in defense matters can be built between France and Germany. The giant Airbus amply demonstrates this today, as does the “small” EATC today (European Air Transport Command). And even if certain projects – such as the Franco-German Brigade or the Eurocorps – have not really proven their success, we should not trust these appearances.

  • On a military level, on a number of operations – such as the anti-piracy operation, the training mission of the Malian army and even the Central African Republic – French and Germans can find (and find) common operating methods, even if they are not simultaneous.
  • On the political level, the coming to power of the SPD and certain “reunions” within the CDU allow, more than ever, between Paris and Berlin, more than acquaintances, the reality of a common journey.
  • At the industrial level, new projects still have to be found. We will no doubt see it during the Franco-German Council of Ministers which is being held in Paris on 19 February.

As always, between the two countries, it will not be easy, even very difficult, because there are real differences. But it is precisely this difficulty that makes joint projects sustainable and this “couple” so irreplaceable. Because around a Franco-German “couple”, many Europeans can come together. Around a Franco-British “cousinage”, there are not many people, this is the greatest weakness of this meeting…

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Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).