31 January 2013
Benoit Gomis

Benoît Gomis

Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Toronto)


UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced a contribution of two C-17 transport planes and a Sentinel R1 aircraft in direct support of the French military operation in Mali and up to 40 military trainers for the EU Training Mission Mali (EUTM). Does this suggest Franco-British defence cooperation is still strong? 

The political context has changed considerably since France and the UK signed the Lancaster House treaties on defence and security cooperation in November 2010. French President François Hollande has not demonstrated the same kind of enthusiasm for Franco-British defence cooperation as his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. A review of France's defence and security has slowed progress. More significantly however, President Hollande and French Defence Secretary Jean-Yves Le Drian have made political overtures to revitalize defence relationships across Europe, including with Germany, Weimar Plus (France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Italy) and the EU more broadly. These developments have caused some concern in the UK, especially as the UK was keen to partner with France in 2010 precisely because it was not the EU. And with prospects of the UK having an increasingly complicated relationship with the EU, it can be assumed that political relations between London and Paris will suffer. Following David Cameron's recent speech on Europe, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a group of British business leaders that, 'if Britain wants to leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet', referring to Cameron's offer to welcome to the UK all French companies unhappy with controversial tax raises.

However, incentives for cross-Channel cooperation in defence and security remain strong. Progress has been achieved since 2010 at the institutional level. Frequent meetings and liaison between the two defence ministries, Senior Level Group, High-Level Working Group and the UK-French Defence Parliamentary Working Group on Defence Cooperation have been held. Preparations for the forthcoming Combined Joint Expeditionary Force in 2016 are being made, with a number of joint military exercises already carried out, and both countries say that there has been a deepening mutual understanding between officials.

Furthermore, recent French efforts to revive defence relations with other European partners, especially Germany, have not produced desired results and are unlikely to do so in the near future. Germany's refusal to play an assertive military role overseas undercuts France's long-standing ambition to use the EU as an instrument of global influence, thus leaving it with the US and Eurosceptic Britain as its principal defence and security partners. A French-UK-US partnership in Mali might bring tactical success, but this would itself underline France's strategic failure to build an internationally-powerful – and French-led – EU.

Finally, and perhaps counter-intuitively, clashes over the Eurozone and the future of the UK in the EU may strengthen bilateral cooperation in other sectors. Defence cooperation is a good way for London and Paris to maintain positive working relations. This provides the political context within which Number 10 has insisted that the British military provide resources to support French efforts in Mali.

In France, the Military Programming Law (Loi de Programmation Militaire) will soon be discussed to outline how the new strategic recommendations of the White Paper (Livre Blanc) will be carried out, while the UK will be starting its strategic review cycle in the next few months. The Mali mission provides an opportunity for French and British militaries to showcase the added value they each bring, the resources they lack, and the opportunities and challenges further Franco-British cooperation would bring to the table.

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