French president Emmanuel Macron and his closest advisers attended the annual U.K. – French summit on January 18, 2018, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Traditionally, these annual summits held between the heads of government of both France and the U.K. and their cabinet colleagues have focused largely on security and defense issues, this year proving no exception. Topics including border control, counter-terrorism, defense spending and procurement as well as trade were all discussed under the shadow of Brexit.
Leaving Brexit aside for a moment, it is important to consider the historical precedent and subsequent wider political environment in which these crucial talks occurred. Anglo-French relations go back centuries, but were solidified in the battlefields of the Somme and across the French and Belgian trenches of the First World War. Increased cooperation emerged as a direct result of shared norms and values held with the French: equality, liberty, and freedom from oppression.
This cooperation led to an increase in shared strategic military objectives, from Suez through to Libya in 2011. Whilst these ventures were not always successful, a shared understanding and appreciation of the others’ defense and military capabilities became ingrained into one another’s foreign policy and geostrategy.
This culminated in the 2010 Lancaster House Summit and the subsequent treaty on defense cooperation. Implementing measures to build on commitments made in the 2010 U.K. Strategic Defence and Security Review, the treaty included the creation of a stronger strategic defense relationship with the U.K.’s main allies, especially those whose security interests and military capabilities are closest to U.K.’s own, namely, France.
The U.K. and France are unequivocally Europe’s top two military powers; indeed, Europe’s only two great military powers. Both nuclear-armed states, with the U.K.’s Continuous At-Sea Deterrent (CASD) especially powerful, they are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the G-7 and G-20. As such, they are the only European states which have the means to project their military anywhere in the world, and have an effect.
This partnership has led to increased military ventures over the last few years. It was France and the U.K., not the United States nor even the E.U. or NATO, who were the main driving forces implementing UNSC resolution 1973 in Libya in 2011. More recently, there has been modest but important military cooperation between the two countries. The U.K. has contributed a strategic airlift capability to Operation Barkhane, France’s ongoing military intervention against Islamic militants in the Sahel region of Africa, and has recently further committed three Chinook transport helicopters and 50 – 60 support personnel there. France meanwhile is providing several hundred troops for Britain’s battlegroup deployed in Estonia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence to deter possible Russian aggression to NATO’s eastern flanks.
A further precedent set by the Lancaster House treaty is the creation of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF). A taskforce made up of 10,000 personnel from both countries, it will be able to operate independently of NATO if need be to achieve bilateral strategic goals. It will also focus on co-operation on weapons systems, such as advanced missiles, and collaboration on the two countries’ nuclear deterrents. To maintaining naval supremacy, a maritime capability centred around the aircraft carriers Charles de Gaulle and the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth will be able to deploy around the world together, crucial in maintaining maritime trade and shipping lane security, as well as deterring external state aggression.
As their capabilities reveal, both unilaterally, bilaterally and as part of NATO, France and the U.K., along with the United States, are the key custodians of European defense. This is not just demonstrated through increased bilateral Anglo-French military partnership, but also through defense spending.
Most E.U. member states are also members of NATO, and as such, are bound by the convention, ratified at the 2014 Wales Summit, to commit 2% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to their defense budget, which goes towards the collective defense of Europe. However, taken over a five-year period from 2012 – 2016, the majority of NATO member states fall some way short of this target. France has fallen short itself, at $24 billion below the target over the last five years. This is a pattern for most of the wealthier members, with the eastern European states, especially the Baltics, footing the bill in comparative terms. The U.K. met the 2% commitment since it has been set, and has in fact ‘overpaid’ beyond the target of $23 billion over the last five years. Germany, with its large industrial power base, has consistently fallen short in defense spending. The previous five years, it has missed its defense spending obligations by $142 billion, 39% below its target, with defense accounting for a mere 1.2% of German GDP.
These figures have very real ramifications. Despite committing troops to Afghanistan, Germany is not yet a great military power, and its defense budget is dwarfed by the combined spending of the UK and France; £32 billion compared to £68 billion. Germany has long been a risk-averse nation and reluctant to get involved in military affairs. This is due to historical reasons and, as a direct result, it is considered politically unfeasible domestically to raise the defense budget to even anything approaching the NATO standard of 2% of GDP.
As a consequence of these ‘gaps’ in the Bundeswehr, Germany has recently made overt gestures for the need of an increased European defense policy and military cooperation. The 2017 Framework Nations Concept (FNC) is a join military cooperation policy from Germany towards other E.U. member states, resulting in the inclusion of Dutch, Czech and Romanian military units, numbering several thousand each, into the Bundeswehr for joint military training and manoeuvres. Complementing both the proposed European Intervention Initiative (EII), put forward in autumn 2017 by President Macron, and the idea of an eventual inclusion of a federally ran ‘European Army’ held by Brussels and the E.U. commission, these policies would have potentially disastrous effects for Britain once it leaves the E.U.
This brings us to the present day, and Brexit. The U.K. and France are relatively equally matched in many regards. Similar population sizes, similar military strengths. Almost equal defense spending, and increased military cooperation, with shared geostrategic objectives around the world. Once the U.K. leaves the E.U. in 2019, Germany will be poised to become the E.U. hegemonic power by way of its overall economic power, its industrial power base on the Rhine and its financial base in Frankfurt. France, as much of the E.U., will eventually bend to German dominance. The issue here is that Germany is well known at utilising the E.U. for its own domestic economic goals and foreign policy agenda.
Coupled with an increase in Franco – German, and a wider Franco – European defense partnerships, through successful implementation of either the EII or Germany’s FNC, this would potentially leave the U.K. at a highly disadvantageous position, just at the precise moment when it needs to be strengthening its image abroad through the maintenance of the international order and especially European security.
Therefore, the January 2018 U.K. – French Summit at Sandhurst, in reasserting the commitment made to joint defense cooperation at the 2010 Lancaster House Summit, has come at a time when European defense could go one of two ways. Either the present model continues, based around trans-Atlantic nuclear guarantees of European security, upheld by NATO and the main European military powers U.K. and France, or a shift in the balance of power from Britain and France to Germany, both in economic terms once the UK has left the E.U., and in very real military terms, centred around a German-controlled ‘European Army’, which would serve mainly Germany’s interests, not that of the U.K.
Image: French President Emmanuel Macron visits Sandhurst Military Academy with British prime minister Theresa May, January 18, 2018. Photo: Press Association.