The recent French Defence White Paper signals a further continuation of deepening Anglo-French ties. As budget constraints squeeze defence spending there was concern amongst British officials that French capabilities would be significantly reduced, hindering not only French, but British foreign policy and the ability for France to uphold major aspects of the Lancaster House Defence cooperation treaties of 2010.
However, underlying the immediate damage of the French defence budget being reduced from 1.7% to around 1.5% of France’s national income and some 34,000 military related jobs being cut between now and 2019, the capabilities of France are simply realigning with different priorities. Mainly, a re-emphasis on expeditionary warfare rather than armed forces geared up for long sustained ground war interventions. Thus, maritime and amphibious projection capabilities have largely been protected whilst an increase in Special Forces will plug the gap of rapid reaction troops being cut from 80,000 to 66,000. Coinciding with the restructuring of France’s ability to project meaningful force across the globe will be an increased emphasis upon intelligence, guided-missiles, remote-controlled air systems and further cooperation with the UK, particularly including missiles, drones and maritime and amphibious projection.
The further strengthening of cooperation between the two major players in European defence is welcome. With shrinking defence budgets across the continent, whilst Asian counterparts are increasing theirs, how long can this trend continue before Europe shrinks into geo-political irrelevance? Additionally with the US currently looking impassive – especially regarding any notion of intervention or engagement – in the European periphery, the Anglo-French alliance is next in line to uphold the brunt of security concerns. Hence, the importance of either country’s military structures and arrangements in place throughout North Africa and the Gulf, two areas of strategic importance, and hotbeds for security concerns.
Yet with both economies strewn with problems and defence budgets having to make sacrifices, it is increasingly necessary for certain capabilities to be pooled in order to match the similar ambitions of two nuclear armed global players. Contemporary examples of Anglo-French cooperation in this manner include both Libya and Mali where crucially both missions were conducted without major American assistance, much to the credit of the UK and France. Not since the Suez debacle in 1956 have the two powers cooperated so closely when it comes to security.
Nevertheless this is where this necessary alliance draws criticism. Mutual interests for the moment may be compatible, but what if they were to diverge over an event concerning the Falklands? Would France respond to a crisis concerning a relic of a past rival empire? Also, how would France react to the UK leaving the EU? This is not beyond the realms of possibility after recent events. Where would NATO and Britain’s ‘special relationship’ fit into the equation?
There continues to be elements of doubt in an everlasting friendship due to the occasional trivial jibes at one another. Cameron’s remark regarding French proposals of increasing the top rate of tax to 75% where he said he would ‘role the red carpet out for French business’ is just one example of either side upsetting the other.
France is also suspicious of the UK’s transatlantic ties and the enduring emphasis of the importance of NATO to British foreign policy. On the other hand the UK ponders over whether France still desires European grandeur and dominance over the continuing development of a European security framework separate to NATO.
Nonetheless, these reservations are irrelevant, or at least forgettable, if either power wishes its capabilities to match ambitions and global responsibility. William Hague recently remarked that the world is less safe than three years ago when the Coalition was formed. Consequently it would appear that the double entente is currently indispensable, regardless of politics, especially for the UK who is now reliant upon the French for an aircraft carrier should it need one for the years to come. Calculatedly what needs to happen is for both London and Paris to gradually fuse strategic thinking together whilst aligning militarily and logistically where possible. Therefore, then reducing the risk of strategic and military mishaps whilst responding to a potential crisis in an operative, co-ordinated and commanding fashion.
The fact that Peter Ricketts (British ambassador in Paris) sat on the Defence commission, something unprecedented, suggests that it is now accepted on either side of the Channel that one of the past great rivalries of Europe is now a pivotal (unbreakable) alliance for its security, and maintaining the global presence of the UK and France. Despite both of their military’s being cut to the bare minimum their capabilities seem just about intact, though further cuts could result in the shrinking of capabilities and global power on par with how quickly their empires unraveled. It increasingly seems the case that whatever the future holds for the UK and France, they will either tackle it together, or decline together.