A convening of French and British leaders for the first time in five years on 10 March is a chance to capitalize on a long-overdue improvement in bilateral relations to build stronger security and defence ties.
With a re-elected French president, a new British prime minister, a wider UK re-engagement with the continent after years of Brexit-induced tensions, and the context of the war in Ukraine, there is a new rationale and window of opportunity for a Franco-British rapprochement.
The ‘big picture’ visions of both countries have come closer in recent years, especially in areas such as the need for Europeans to take more responsibility for their own security, and how to tackle Russia – both key topics in France’s recently published Revue Nationale Stratégique and the upcoming refresh of the UK’s Integrated Review.
But there remains limits to what the two countries can and want to do together regarding defence cooperation, so both should be careful not to overcommit and overpromise.
The 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, which launched many UK-France initiatives in capability and operational cooperation, have seen somewhat mixed results, and lessons can be drawn from not just what has been achieved – small footprint, pragmatic projects – but also what has not – such as a lack of wider, more structured programmes and aspirations.
Occasional competition, as well as divergences between London and Paris – mostly on Europe, the role of US global leadership, and industrial sovereign control– will continue to occur. And the impact of this on the feasibility and desirability of future joint work, from industrial projects to EU-UK or EU-NATO cooperation, should be acknowledged.
Rebooting the Franco-British defence agenda
The roadmap discussed at the summit must be ambitious yet realistic. The UK and France need to find common ground and joint purpose, learn from past mistakes, and work constructively through disagreements. Concrete topics for joint work include strategic discussions on European security frameworks, joint operational deployments, and military capability development projects.
Paris and London should better coordinate supplies of weapons to Ukraine, the complementarity of the UK and EU training missions for the Ukrainian armed forces, as well as discuss their views on security guarantees and Euro-Atlantic integration for Ukraine in the short and medium term. These consultations can form the basis of wider discussions in the G7 and NATO, and both should also discuss their respective approaches and priorities ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius in July.
Both countries also share challenges in continuing to provide military support to Ukraine by replenishing and increasing both the stocks and industrial capacity to produce. The outline and practicalities of a ‘war economy’ particularly in the context of a cost-of-living crisis and inflation, with defence budgets about to be clarified in both countries, and how this translates to the defence industrial realm for the long-term is still unclear.
Future operational requirements and force structures are being reassessed given Ukrainian lessons learned and the end of long- standing overseas contingency operations, bringing about new or updated needs which may lead to further joint Franco-British cooperation given the convergence in both strategic and operational cultures.
Both countries recognize a need to increase their armed forces’ readiness for high intensity warfare scenarios, which means heightened effort in ground-based deep fires and air defence, as well as standoff weapons to perform forcible entry operations from both air and sea domains.
To substantiate this, training together for a more lethal environment and in ever more challenging situations should be the new standard for both militaries. Joint deployments and operations prove a strong common strategic culture and UK-France joint leadership.
The Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) – which officially reached full operating capability in 2020 and enabled important progress on interoperability – needs rearticulating and repurposing to be relevant in today’s strategic context.
Leaders on both sides also need to take the time to expand on and understand each other’s wider strategic priorities. The Euro-Atlantic area is the first and foremost priority for both, with increased French and British commitments to NATO’s Eastern flank as part of the post-February 2022 response.
A better understanding of London’s ambitions and forward plans for the Joint-Expeditionary Force (JEF) in the Nordic-Baltic region would also be beneficial to ensure Franco-British overall strategic alignment, as well as a better mutual understanding of mutual Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea strategies and objectives.
Africa and the Middle East remain key regions where both countries have lasting interests despite declining resources to dedicate to them, given competing priorities, which strengthens further the case for bilateral cooperation and synergies.
Containing the rise of malign competitors influence, as exemplified by the current activities of the Wagner Group in the Sahel, is of particular importance to both France and the UK.
Finally, the Indo-Pacific is a logical new item for Franco-British defence cooperation as the two countries learn to better manage their competition and move beyond the AUKUS fallout. A coordinated maritime presence rather than a joint one would enable a more regular and structured European presence in this vast region.
Beyond the summit
With upcoming progress on the Northern Ireland protocol, positive political messaging from London and Paris at this summit could facilitate a more ambitious UK-EU defence agreement, building on the UK’s recent decision to join the PESCO military mobility project.