The future of the UK-France security alliance

Post-Brexit, the Franco-British defence and security alliance will be a complex balancing act

In comments made to the Guardian several days ago, President Macron urged the UK Government to be more decisive about Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy and “choose a model”.

The UK—one of the most influential defence and security powers of the European space—has adopted an increasingly ad-hoc attitude towards international affairs in times of late.

When it came to sanctions on Belarus, the UK liaised with Canada before consulting the EU. And despite European, French and German criticism of Turkish gas excavations in the Mediterranean, Britain has remained impartial. Britain and the EU were, however, united when it came to Russian sanctions following the poisoning of activist Alexei Navalny in August 2020.

The more flexible post-Brexit foreign policy of a “Global Britain” is to be characterised by bilateral and “mini-lateral” agreements with key international partners on a case-by-case basis. Whilst it may bring new opportunities for the UK, this unpredictability is a blow for the EU.

Key figures from the Brussels-based bloc are keen to assert their dominance vis-à-vis frequently flexed Chinese muscles, an influence-hungry Russia and a changeable United States. This must be why “strategic autonomy” is a common theme in discussions of Brussels’ foreign policy, and why France and Germany recently agreed to enhance their bilateral security links. This may also explain why Germany saw the world’s largest increase in military spending (10 percent) between 2018 and 2019, now making it the second biggest defence spender in the Europe space.

The recent remarks of the French premier not only convey concern for links between London and Brussels, however. Is Emmanuel Macron worried that Britain’s departure from the formal European model could also threaten bilateral links between the UK and individual state governments, such as those between Paris and London?

The UK and France have robust ties when it comes to foreign policy, security and defence. President Macron is evidently aware of long-established Franco-British cooperation. In a “letter to the British” dated 1 February 2020, he mentioned “such strong links between our two countries” and spoke of the need to “deepen […] our cooperation in terms of defence, security and intelligence”.

The mutual security and defence interests of both countries were affirmed in the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties and the 2018 Sandhurst Treaty. These accords took place independently of EU structures, a reflection of the ability of both countries to cooperate beyond them.

France and the UK both have considerable continental clout. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the UK ($48.7bn) was the third largest military spender in Europe in 2019, after France ($50.1bn) and Germany ($49.3bn). The British Prime minister’s announcement of a military spending increase of over £16.5bn ($22.8bn) over four years could, however, boost Britain’s position in these rankings.

A recent report produced by the Institut Montaigne and King’s College London showed that the defence capabilities of the UK and France are very alike. Both countries are Europe’s only nuclear powers and are permanent members of the UN Security Council. France and the UK also have similar numbers of military personnel. Furthermore, according to the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, when French and British research and development budgets are put together, they comprise 80 per cent of total European R&D spending. In a fragmented world, such resources are not insignificant.

“Such strong links”

There are good reasons for this Franco-British security alliance to remain strong post-Brexit. The cross-Channel relationship means that France has a capable partner upon which it can rely at an international level, alongside Germany. And it enables Britain to remain influential over the security and defence decision-making taking place in the European space.

The 2010 Lancaster House agreements have led most recently to the creation of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), a 10,000-strong Franco-British military grouping which became fully operational in autumn 2020. Mr Macron’s idea of a European army might not have gained support among many in the EU, but this body, containing soldiers from Europe’s two largest defence powers, could be seen as some incarnation of his ambitions for continental defence.

The 2010 treaties have also enabled both countries cooperate on new defence technologies. In the Franco-British TEUTATES project, a new hydrodynamics facility in Valduc, Burgundy will open in 2022. Cooperation continues also on the joint Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) project, which involves the construction of an autonomous marine threat detection system. In December 2020, the UK announced a £184-million investment in the project, which should be completed in 2022. 

The 2018 Sandhurst Treaty only broadened the relationship. Crucially, it reinforced the acknowledgement that neither country could realistically be confronted with an emergency which would not threaten the other. 

Both sides reaffirmed their counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing commitments. This is important for Mr Macron, who has spoken at considerable length during his presidency of the need to address radicalisation and “separatism” in France, and the UK Government’s desire to defend British borders. Both countries also agreed on common approaches for international issues in Iran, Israel, Libya and Russia, and the UK promised to send support aircraft to assist French forces in the ongoing operation in the African Sahel.

Will Brexit have negative consequences for other Franco-British projects?

But despite recent successes, could Franco-British bilateralism be losing traction due to Brexit and a desire for heightened European strategic autonomy?

Brexit may already have had an impact on air defence cooperation. After three years of progress, a collaboration between British firm BAE Systems and French company Dassault on the construction of an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) stalled in 2017. Was this due to Brexit? In the opinion of Dassault CEO Eric Trappier, the decision conveyed “strong turbulence” which he attributed to the UK’s EU departure.

Both countries have since gone their separate ways regarding the project. The UK is developing its own Tempest fighter with Italy and Sweden instead. The three countries signed a “trilateral memorandum of understanding” at the start of January. And France is now collaborating with Germany and Spain to develop a separate vehicle. 

The existence of two different partnerships may be good news for respective European strategic autonomy and the resilience of Britain’s defence economy. But it is a shame that the two largest security actors of the European space are unable to work together as closely.

Hopefully cooperation over the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) won’t fragment in the same way. This collaboration aims to develop new sea- and air-launched missiles to replace the British Harpoon and the French Exocet by 2030. Yet, following a positive Phase One, neither Paris nor London has committed formally to Phase Two. In fairness, the Covid-19 pandemic will doubtless have caused financial pressures. 

That being said, it is encouraging to see that the FC/ASW project is clearly in the UK Government’s eyeline. After Jeremy Quin, UK Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence, was asked about the project’s future in the British House of Commons in December 2020, he replied that both sides continued to explore the “possibility for a joint UK/FR Assessment Phase in 2021”. Solid commitment to the future of the project remains to be seen, however.

Looking forward, it is clear that both sides have much in common when it comes to defence and security. Mr Macron was right when he told the Guardian that “History and geography don’t change, so I don’t think the British people have a different destiny to ours.”

Indirect British influence in Europe

Furthermore, for Britain, the Franco-British alliance is not only beneficial in terms of its post-Brexit national security interests. The partnership also provides the country with a valuable bargaining chip when it comes to EU defence and security policy, some of which is in fact particularly informal.

As Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform points out, European defence and security policy is “far from monolithic” and can include a variety of informal structures involving a select group of states, which operate in tandem with, but independently of, the EU.

One such informal grouping is the E3, consisting of Britain, France and Germany. Britain has expressed a keen interest in remaining a member of the E3 post-Brexit. The group has already been vocal on the Iran nuclear agreement, attacks in Saudi Arabia and the increasingly militarised South China Sea.

Maintaining robust security relations with France may only boost indirect British influence within the tightknit E3 grouping, providing Britain with a valuable say in broader EU decision-making and the backing of the security-heavyweight France.

This is all the more important for Britain given that the use of informal mechanisms such as the E3 could become more common given continental foreign policy fragmentation. It can often be difficult for the EU to forge a united approach on its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), given that every member state has a veto. This was particularly visible when Cyprus threatened to block EU sanctions on Belarus a few months back.

In this light, the use of informal European security mechanisms thus provides a major incentive for continued diversification of the Franco-British alliance. In partnership with its French allies, Post-Brexit Britain could have major influence in the E3 and over other informal security groupings such as the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), which was initiated by the strategic-autonomy-conscious Mr Macron.

Will Europe need the UK?

In the reverse sense, there is an obvious desire on Europe’s part to remain on good terms with Britain when it comes to defence and security. Figures in Brussels were disappointed when Britain appeared reluctant to formulate a common UK-EU framework on such issues during Brexit negotiations last year. This was a particular blow after the 2019 withdrawal agreement had included plans for strategic alignment and Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had made clear her opinion that “European security is our security”.

That being said, the EU will have to be wary of the indirect influence a more flexible, domestically oriented, and potentially unpredictable UK could have in European security circles both of its own accord and indirectly, through a strengthened Franco-British alliance.

The bloc is obviously aware of the need to develop its own strengths within the vacuum. The fact that Brussels published a “Global Strategy” document which spoke of “strategic autonomy” the day after the UK’s EU referendum in 2016 is no coincidence. And at the same time as looking for close security cooperation with Britain in Brexit negotiations, EU policymakers were conscious of the need to avoid handing Britain “leverage” over trade on the grounds of its valuable security capabilities.

On a French level, Mr Macron will be keen not to reduce European strategic autonomy. He is an ardently pro-European president and European sovereignty has become a crucial part of his politics. See his comments to the Guardian that “I believe in a sovereign continent and nation-states”.

A complex diplomatic balancing act

Looking forward, the Franco-British defence and security landscape will be tricky to navigate post-Brexit. Diplomacy between Britain, France, other pivotal EU member states and formal EU actors will be a complex balancing act in the years to come. 

The Franco-British security alliance does have a future in an increasingly fragmented world. Cooperating with France, one of two other large players within the European defence context, would provide Britain with an indirect foot in the continental camp, and France would maintain a decades-long partnership which gives it global reach.

Yet in the longer term, things could turn pear-shaped for Europe more broadly if Britain wields too much indirect influence via the Franco-British concert and more flexible UK politicians decide to shop around when it comes to foreign policy. What would happen if a US president gave Britain a transatlantic offer it could not refuse?

British influence over European security also challenges the concept of European strategic and defence autonomy. It is a highly useful and relevant concept in a multipolar world, but could it require a change of definition to “European spatial autonomy” if British security influence extends into the European area but not the formal European Union?

If Britain encroaches too much, this could encourage European defensiveness. In order to maintain positive relations with the EU, perhaps Britain will have to be content as the backseat driver for now, maintaining strong opinions in the background. But, realistically, it doesn’t appear that a “Global Britain” will be content with a behind-the-scenes role. The UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, clearly has a desire for “Global Britain” to be “leading the world as a force for good”. 

Yet, on the other hand, if Europe treads too hard a line with Britain, its relationship with a valuable security partner could turn cold and lead to the destabilisation of the Anglo-Gallic alliance.

To return to Mr Macron’s comments, the French president, like others in Europe, is obviously searching for consistency amidst division. At this stage, the best Brussels can hope for is a defence and security agreement with Britain. Yet, as Professor Richard G Whitman, Associate Fellow of Chatham House’s Europe Programme, points out, this will take time and shouldn’t be pushed for immediately.

As Mr Macron argues, it would be much easier for Europe to navigate British post-Brexit foreign policy and security if the UK aligned itself with either one model or the other. But as it doesn’t look likely that such clarity will come anytime soon, sensitive diplomacy between both sides will have to be the solution.

Photo UK Prime Minister, OGL 3, via Wikimedia Commons.

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