What future for Franco-British security and defence cooperation?

This post originally appeared on the website of the Institut Montaigne.

Is Brexit a threat to Franco-British defence and security cooperation ? Three questions to Dr Benedict Wilkinson, Senior Research Fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

Seven years after their signature, what is the impact of the Lancaster House Agreements on both France and the United-Kingdom (UK)?

At its most basic, the Lancaster House Treaties have made security and defence cooperation between the UK and France broader and deeper. For the French, the Treaties were mainly about getting the UK on board with their ambition to improve wider EU defence cooperation. In this, they were mostly successful. The British not only wanted to improve defence cooperation at the EU level, but also wanted a mechanism for engaging with the other leading European defence power outside of the EU framework. In this, they too, were mainly successful, for instance, in signing agreements in sectors such as missile production, nuclear and UAVs. Overall, then, the Treaties have had a positive impact: both parties have achieved their objectives and the partnership has become consequently more robust and encompasses a wider variety of areas.

But – and it is a big but – this is not the whole story. Things have not gone quite so well over the last three years as they did in the first four. Since 2014, cooperation between the two countries has stagnated and has not grown to its full potential. France has developed a much more interventionist perspective and strategic culture in this period, whilst the UK has become much more restrained when it comes to ‘boots on the ground’, not least because of the lingering toxicity associated with the Iraq war. This change in the UK attitudes is neatly symbolised by recent decisions to avoid military engagements altogether (for instance, the Parliamentary vote on Syria lost by Cameron) or to engage in only a supporting role when necessary (e.g. Mali). The UK’s change in strategic culture is largely the consequence of the Iraq War, which has left many feeling deceived and misled. Amongst the public, there is now little appetite for getting involved in military action, except perhaps in a limited way such as intelligence support or air operations.

Of course, this is no-one’s fault in particular, but one of the unintended consequences of all this is that the UK’s close cooperation with France, particularly in military operations, has suffered. If the UK is to continue to pursue its ambitions of ‘punching above its weight’ and being a force for good in the world, then it must look to shore up its relationship with France – and the through this, the EU – as soon as possible.


Do you think the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU will put at risk the Franco-British defence and security partnership?

In purely theoretical terms, no. The Franco-British relationship is a bilateral one, built outside of the European context and underpinned by NATO frameworks, terminologies and doctrines. It is, in essence, is a state-on-state bilateral relationship and therefore any other negotiations should not affect it.

That, however, is pure theory. In practise I find it impossible to see how the Brexit negotiations would not impact UK-France relations. There are two reasons for this. First, although Macron is not aiming to ‘punish’ the UK, he remains a passionate European who will seek the best deal for both France and the EU. Second, the UK, in a position of relative weakness in terms of bargaining chips, is likely to have to make compromises in the defence and security arena and, as a consequence, looks likely to suffer. A defence relationship based on cooperation in one arena and mutual harm in another does not bode well.

However, its not only the UK who will suffer. There will also be implications for France, who does not want to be the sole driver of the European security and defence project and will now have to seek a new EU ally, and build a working relationship. Indeed, this is precisely why France is reaching out so rapidly and intensely to Germany. Germany, in turn, will have to further increase her defence spending and enter a territory that she has always been cagey and hesitant about. In sum, the unintended consequences of the Brexit negotiations are likely to damage not just UK-France relations, but also evolve the defence cooperative partnerships of numerous other member states.


How does the UK currently perceive France and potentially Germany moving on to the European defence policy project?

Two perceptions seem to be present. The first is for the UK to wish the remaining member states of the EU ‘good luck’. They agree on numerous issues and together, the EU and its major powers can drive forward a common security and defence policy. The UK, who never been a leading advocate of complete EU integration of member states’ militaries or procurement and supply architectures, can continue to retain sovereignty in areas such as procurement and operations.

So in some ways, all this appears to suit the UK, the member states and the EU institutions. But in reality, the UK will probably look at all this cooperation between member states and within EU structures with a certain degree of green-eyed envy. European partners will cooperate with one another, produce deals and understand one another better. In the meantime, the British will have the painful task of rebuilding, of identifying and developing a whole new set of alliances they will have to build if they want to achieve their foreign policy objectives. And, of course, alongside all these bilateral agreements will go the crucial one: negotiating a new ‘special relationship’ on defence and security with the EU.

There is a further critical point. Defence and security are areas in which the UK has significant leverage: it has a lot to offer in terms of its defence industry, nuclear weapons and its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This is one of the few areas where the UK has valuable ‘bargaining chips’ in the negotiations. However, it is crucial that the UK maintains its strength in these areas as a way of ensuring it has the value to add when it comes to formulating this new set of crucial bilateral relationships.

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