Benoit Gomis
Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Vancouver)

Less than half a year after the signing of the Franco-British treaties on 2 November 2010, the UK and France took the political lead to resolve the Libyan crisis, and provided the majority of the military efforts amongst the NATO Alliance. Libya served as a valuable test case for future cooperation and highlighted a number of broader challenges and opportunities for the Franco-British partnership.

Political challenges

Although the two parties agreed to design 'politics proof' treaties focused on structural and practical cooperation, political tensions have re-emerged. In the beginning of the operations in Libya, the two countries disagreed on the type of command to take over from the US. Differences not only illustrated the UK's attachment to the 'special relationship' but also France's distinct understanding of its role within the NATO Alliance. NATO is the cornerstone of the UK's international security strategy, whereas France regards it as a useful tool, yet one amongst several others. More important perhaps is the discord over the idea of an independent EU Operational Headquarters (OHQ), favoured by France, but strongly rejected by the UK. Additionally, President Sarkozy has publicly expressed his frustration at Prime Minister Cameron and the UK over the Eurozone crisis, which once again sheds light on divergent visions of Europe.

The political push provided by strong personalities and personal alliances has slowed down over the past few months. At the head of the French Ministry of Defence, Hervé Morin was replaced by Alain Juppé shortly after the signature of the treaties and in February, Gérard Longuet took over from Juppé. UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox has been replaced by Philip Hammond, whose experience in military affairs is limited. These changes might only have a limited impact, as bilateral cooperation on security and defence issues is largely driven by the Elysée and Number 10. However a number of turnovers in crucial positions on both sides have put a brake on further progress. The UK is also watching developments ahead of France's forthcoming presidential election: leading Socialist candidate François Hollande's defence policy is unclear. 

Opportunities at the operational level

Nevertheless, the UK and France managed to achieve military success in Libya where they demonstrated similar values and interests, political leadership, and military precision and effectiveness. The Libyan crisis highlighted three trends which demonstrate the need for a strong Franco-British partnership. 

Firstly, the US is willing to disengage from Europe's 'backyard'. Given a delicate budgetary situation and the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is likely to be pickier over future military engagement.

Secondly, the EU has again proved its limitations. The UN-backed operation in Libya to prevent a tyrant from killing his own people in Europe's neighbourhood received little support from the EU, despite fitting within its criteria. The political abstention of Germany contributed to disillusion from more engaged European partners. Overall, many EU member states demonstrated either a lack of political and economic appetite or an absence of adequate military capacity for operations. Yet despite the disengagement or disinterest from the US and much of Europe, the Libyan crisis showed how France and the UK are likely to require more support from allies in future operations.

Finally, the ongoing economic crisis in the Eurozone means that defence cuts are not over. This will require more efficiency and prioritization, two areas where bilateral cooperation may prove necessary but not sufficient without wider support.

While the UK realises the potential benefits of further cooperation with France in defence and security, divergences remain within the British government over the EU. Over the next year, developments at a high political level over the EU and the Eurozone could have a spill-over effect on other issues necessitating a strong political drive, including defence and security cooperation.