As all of Europe braces for spending cuts, Britain and France are preparing to examine whether and how they might be able to work more closely together in the area of defense. French Defense Minister Hervé Morin described the venture as “a very ambitious operation” in parliament last month.
According to Morin, the new Liberal-Conservative government in London wants France to “analyze in a very detailed way what are the competences and means that each of the two countries should retain complete sovereignty, those which could be pooled, and those on which there could be interdependence.” As much as both countries may dream of retaining “complete sovereignty,” budget restraints mean that cooperation is nothing short of a necessity.
The French are postponing a number of programs, including an order for fourteen Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft and the Ceres satellite surveillance system, in an effort to cut €3.5 billion on defense spending over the next three years.
Last year, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to offer cooperation when it became obvious that Britain could afford just a single aircraft carrier instead of two. Now, with Whitehall scrambling for 10 to 20 percent in budget cuts across the board and the Ministry of Defense anticipating “the absolute mother of horrors of a spending review,” in the words of Secretary Liam Fox, further collaboration may appear appealing in both capitals.
The differences between the British and French armed forces are substantial. As Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations and former chief executive of the European Defense Agency in Brussels, explains at World Politics Review, contrary to Britain, France has pursued an independent defense policy since the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. While Britain focused on its “special relationship” with the United States, France withdrew from the integrated military command structure of NATO in the 1960s and developed a nuclear deterrent of its own. “That’s been a formidable technological achievement,” according to Witney, “but one that has often left French conventional forces poorly equipped, as the first Gulf War demonstrated.”
Differences persist up to this very day. Whereas France welcomes the potential of European might and notions of common defense and foreign policy, Britain, particularly under Conservative leadership, remains weary of everything to do with Brussels. Witney believes that it is “ready to make an exception for France” though which, in turn, will be content to work with other European countries separately.
Any residual animosity or mistrust stemming from centuries of strife has diluted in recent years as Jacques Chirac, in spite of his rhetoric and opposition to the Iraq War, managed to temper traditional anti-Americanism in foreign policy and after President Sarkozy returned France into NATO.
What’s more, Britain and France have proven able to work together on a number of armaments projects in the past — “from Jaguar combat aircraft and Puma helicopters to Storm Shadow cruise missiles,” notes Witney — while both like to maintain a leverage internationally that is quite disproportionate to their actual weight in terms of both military and economic strength. A twenty-first century entente cordiale, in short, makes perfect sense.
Morin last month expected work on the French side to be completed by the end of July. Britain is preparing to publish an extensive strategic defense and security review in October.