Forget Trump and Brexit: the future of British defence rests on the French presidential election

by Jack Owens

Treaties, you see, are like young girls and roses – they last while they last! – Charles de Gaulle.

Six years on from the signature of the Lancaster House Treaties – the Franco-British bilateral defence agreement signed by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy – the long-term future of cooperation across the Channel is unclear. Bilateral cooperation in most areas of defence has increased, from the coordination of air and marine capabilities to counter-terrorism and joint R&D programmes. But the UK’s looming exit from the European Union could spell an end to the love affair.

For Britain, the decision to eschew an EU defence policy in favour of a bilateral partnership with France is unsurprising. London has long trodden on eggshells over European defence cooperation for fear of damaging its special relationship with the United States, but a utilitarian agreement with Paris presents no such problems. Budgetary considerations also lay behind the move, since pooling military capabilities to cut costs has been a common theme in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. On the French side, fiscal constraints also applied, but the decision is slightly more puzzling given its traditional advocacy of ever closer union. According to British and French defence ministries, bottom-up, practical considerations informed the signing of the Lancaster House Treaties. But it is not clear how long this cooperation can last in the post-Brexit environment. General de Gaulle, ever hostile to les rosbifs, would have been sceptical.

Whither British defence, then? There are perhaps three options. The first would be to continue cooperation with the EU’s defence agencies even after seceding from the Union. The UK has already committed to ‘opt-in’ to Europol, suggesting that ministers are willing to remain involved in EU agencies where it suits them. Like Norway, it may also remain part of the European Defence Agency and contribute to Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions. This, however, will entail having no voting rights and a reduced role in decision-making.

A second option would be to promote bilateral relations with existing defence partners. France and the US are the two states with which the UK has the security strongest ties. Continuing to work with France would be an attractive option given its proximity, its shared foreign policy objectives, and the interlinked military capabilities which already exist. Franco-British collaboration has a long and storied history that stretches back through two World Wars, the Suez debacle, the 1998 summit at Saint-Malo that instituted the CSDP, and the 2011 Libyan intervention. On matters such as immigration, Britain has clear vested interests in a close partnership with France. A favourable deal could also see Britain retain its border in Calais.

The US-UK relationship by contrast, has sustained serious damage since the turn of the millennium. Although successive presidents have declared their commitment to the special relationship, the US’s long-term defence objectives are firmly rooted in the Pacific and mitigating the threat of China. Where London and Washington’s security interests do intersect – at present, in the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia – Brexit will force Washington to find a new way to get its voice heard in EU debates. The Obama administration struggled to hide its disappointment at the loss of one of NATO’s most vocal and influential supporters in Brussels.

The election of Donald Trump will further complicate matters. Theresa May’s government is still scrambling to build links with the incoming administration after Nigel Farage, somewhat embarrassingly, beat them to it. How special the new relationship will be hangs in the balance. If Trump follows through with his bullish approach to NATO – demanding that member states increase defence spending to the 2% GDP target – he will be met with protests and risk damaging the unity of the Atlantic Alliance. On the other hand, his nominee for Defence Secretary, General Mattis – who recently called Russia the biggest threat to international security since World War II – looks set to be more pragmatic. The UK will undoubtedly remain an important member of NATO; the real question is whether NATO will still be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.

A third option for Britain would be to forge closer relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Some British politicians have called for the emergence of a ‘CANZUK’ partnership, alluding to the cultural, constitutional and economic similarities between the UK and its former Dominions. Such an alliance would have a combined military budget of $110 billion, making it the third largest in the world, but the common ground in security policy is thin. Britain remains strategically focussed on stemming the flow of migrants and refugees from Syria and on combatting terrorism across the European continent, from which Canada, Australia and New Zealand are worlds apart.

Many policy-makers in France, as in Italy and Germany, are likely to see Brexit as an opportunity to push for a long-overdue deepening of military integration. Days after the referendum, plans for a ‘European army’ – which had been in the works for months, but were postponed so as not to affect the vote – were made public, provoking criticism from the UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. François Fillon, nominated by the French Republicans after beating rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, has promised to increase defence expenditure and may back an EU army if elected president. Analysis of Fillon’s policies is complicated by his careful positioning ahead of the election in April, but his history of Russophilia suggests he is unlikely to pursue closer ties with NATO. If French euros pour into EU defence projects, cross-Channel relations are likely to be strained.

Current polls suggest that Fillon will beat Marine Le Pen in a second round run-off, but given the wave of populist hysteria in Europe the Front National leader should not be underestimated. Le Pen has called for looser ties to Washington and French withdrawal from NATO. A vocal critic of the EU, she would also be a reluctant participant in European defence programmes. Common anti-EU sentiments might encourage a renewal of ties with post-Brexit Britain, if the political will is there. Equally likely, however, is a period of inward-looking isolationism. Whatever happens, it seems probable that the UK will find herself between a rock and numerous hard places – Paris, Brussels, Washington – when it comes to forging a long-term defence strategy.

About the author

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Jack Owens recently completed an MPhil in International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge. His research interests include European Union foreign policy, economic and commercial diplomacy, comparative politics, and international political economy.
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