“Sovereignty is not isolationism”; so said French President Sarkozy when he signed a historic agreement with UK Prime Minister on defence co-operation.
The deal between the UK and France aims for quite some far-reaching measures that will pool the defence capabilities of both countries for the next 50 years.
David Cameron was keen also to assure the media that the UK would not be restricted in making strategic defence decisions by pooling resources and capabilities with the French.
Does this new entente cordiale mark a step towards a deeper EU defence policy, or does it in fact create a pragmatic alternative that would in reality preclude any closer EU-level co-operation?
Britain and France are the two largest military spenders in the EU and therefore form the essential pillars of any EU defence ambitions. The two governments account for almost half of all military spending in the EU. However, both have a very different approach to EU defence policy. France, only recently a full member of NATO, have traditionally been enthusiastic about an EU role in defence; the UK have been careful to pick and choose areas for more EU co-operation, preferring to develop a leading role for itself in NATO.
When US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton came to Brussels last month, she implied that impending cuts to the UK defence budget would only undermine the usefulness of the UK within NATO – and as a military ally of the US. The UK Government, nevertheless, pressed on with stringent cuts to its defence budget.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which the UK Government issued on 19th October, foresees significant cuts in military capabilities with 8 percent cuts to the defence budget over the next four years
The budget cuts are the main reason for the UK’s decision to enter a pragmatic bilateral relationship with France.
The UK-France deal includes the creation of a joint expedition force, the shared use of aircraft carriers as well as cooperation for the maintenance and spare parts of strategic airlift capabilities. What has been deemed as ‘modest’ combined efforts on the safety and effectiveness of both countries’ nuclear weapons are also part of the deal.
An emergency deployment force will have 5000 service-men and women from each country, with land, sea and air components and with commanders rotating between UK and France.
Some of this makes good practical sense for both parties –. The UK won’t have its second carrier until 2020 but once it does, the French can use it as an alternative to the unreliable “Charles de Gaulle”.
The extent of nuclear cooperation established by the deal underscores the will to retain absolutely independent nuclear capabilities, maintaining mutual secrecy of the strength of the French ‘force de frappe’ vs. the British submarine ballistic missile force.
However, Strategic airlift continues to be a problem for Europe which it is only now dealing with the new Airbus A400M, already late in schedule, set to be delivered only in 2012
A recent centre for European reform paper says that “London must invest the same political energy it has devoted to France towards exploring additional savings with other European countries.
Certainly the SDSR, has opened the possibility of closer defence co-operation with Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.
The SDSR says that the EU has a role to play in “promoting security and prosperity”.
That the SDSR does not see bilateral co-operation on defence operations and capabilities as an alternative to a fully-formed EU defence policy is striking – not least because its principal author is Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, an ardent Euro-sceptic who was, in opposition, keen to seethe UK withdraw from the European Defence Agency and openly opposed a stronger foreign policy that would result from the Lisbon Treaty.
That does not mean the UK Government has not been critical where it believes European military operations have failed. The EU mission in support of security sector reform in Guinea-Bissau and the military training mission for Somali security forces has raised eyebrows in the Foreign Office. But the UK wants to keep the EU’s military deployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Notwithstanding some highly effective EU military programmes, EU defence policy has been stagnant, on the whole, since the Iraq war. The success of the France-UK deal could provide the EU with an impetus to further develop EU co-operation on defence and security. The so-called Common Security and Defence Policy still falls short of any workable EU-wide decision-making capacity.
However, that is to assume the France-UK deal will work in practice. In 1998, both countries signed the St Malo defence accord which was within the NATO framework. Just five years later, it was forgotten as France became the UK’s biggest critic for going to war with Iraq.