Are the UK and France on the same page

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Benoît Gomis
Benoît Gomis

Associate Fellow, International Security at Chatham House

More than three years ago, the UK and France signed wide-ranging cooperation agreements on defence and security. Across Europe, some criticized the Lancaster House treaties for excluding other European partners and the EU as such; in the UK, there were concerns that this new partnership would lead to a European army, while in France, many cautioned that the Franco-British deal could in fact jeopardize broader European defence policy efforts. Yet most observers agreed that the UK and France had signed historic and ambitious treaties that were largely a result of bilateral rapprochement between the two countries at the strategic and political levels.

Things have changed. François Hollande replaced Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée in May 2012, initially bringing with him much uncertainty over defence policy and the renewed Entente Cordiale (also dubbed Entente Frugale in reference to the budgetary incentives of pooling resources). His style of power has proved very different from Sarkozy – much less assertive and impulsive and much more collegial and patient. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is also more influential than his predecessors. He is passionate about strategy, policy and Europe, in contrast with UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, whose key focus has been budget management. Hollande has sought to revive European defence policy while keeping the Franco-British process moving along, hoping to compromise between all of France’s main European partners. However, recent summits – the European Council on Defence of December 2013 and the UK-France Brize Norton Summit of January 2014 – have shown that this approach has its limits. The two leaders publicly expressed differences over EU reform, and the months leading up to the two summits proved even more difficult privately between the two governments.

With the rise of Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), David Cameron has recently opposed all projects enhancing EU coordination over defence matters, which has created frustrations in Paris. In addition, the two governments have bickered over other issues, including economic policy – French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was recently adamant that France would not adopt similar policies to the UK, given that the British economic model had created “mass poverty” and inequalities. Among many other declarations from UK politicians, London mayor Boris Johnson has repeatedly boasted about the huge numbers of young professionals leaving France and its high taxes behind to find better opportunities across the Channel.

With the rise of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP), David Cameron has recently opposed all projects enhancing EU coordination over defence matters, which has created frustrations in Paris

More importantly, recent months have highlighted striking differences in foreign policy. France has intervened militarily in Mali and the Central African Republic, where the UK only provided limited logistical support. France has also been keen to use force against the Assad regime, while the British Parliament voted against military intervention. France has increased diplomatic cooperation with the US, culminating in a state visit of François Hollande, while Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have met on numerous occasions over Iran, Syria and other security challenges. These developments could be interpreted as purely symbolic, and US officials repeatedly stated that closer cooperation with France did not imply a weakened partnership with the UK. But the US renewed caution to deploy forces abroad makes France’s assertive military posture all the more appealing. It is perhaps telling that the US and France recently conducted combined carrier strike group operations including aircraft carriers Harry S. Truman and Charles de Gaulle in the Gulf of Oman.

The UK and France are therefore not strictly on the same page. However it would be naïve to overestimate the symbiosis between the two countries in 2010. Already then, each government had their own interests, and their visions differed on key issues such as the EU. Most alliances suffer similar challenges, as the history of the US-UK “special relationship” certainly demonstrates.

Progress has been made since the signature of the Lancaster House treaties, as the two bureaucracies and militaries now work together on a weekly basis and to a level that many would have been sceptical of 10 years ago. However military cooperation is far from “politics proof”, contrary to the claim often made by senior officials in London and Paris. Differing political agendas, especially on the EU, are impacting the partnership.

There should be a proper study into […] how the partnership can expand with tangible results into areas of increasing relevance for the two countries, namely weak governance, organized crime and violent extremism (especially in the Sahel), and cyber securit

Current difficulties should nonetheless be used as an opportunity to reassess it. There should be a proper study into: where and how the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) would be used; how current problems of intelligence sharing, communications and other operational differences that have emerged from joint training missions can be addressed; how other countries (including other small European member states and the US) can be integrated into bilateral dynamics in the most effective manner; whether savings are indeed being made; and how the partnership can expand with tangible results into areas of increasing relevance for the two countries, namely weak governance, organized crime and violent extremism, especially in the Sahel, and cyber security.

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