Benoit Gomis
Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Vancouver)
The UK hosted the UK-France Summit 2014 at Royal Air Force Brize Norton. At the summit, Prime Minister Cameron and President Hollande focused on cooperation on foreign affairs, defence and security, nuclear energy and space. Photo: Crown copyright.The UK hosted the UK-France Summit 2014 at Royal Air Force Brize Norton. At the summit, Prime Minister Cameron and President Hollande focused on cooperation on foreign affairs, defence and security, nuclear energy and space. Photo: Crown copyright.

The forthcoming European Council on Security and Defence should focus on pragmatic advances in security policy, such as strengthening the UK−France defence partnership.

This December, the European Council on Security and Defence will be the European Union’s first in five years. Since 2008, when the European Security Strategy was last updated, a number of geopolitical, military and economic developments have substantially altered Europe’s strategic environment. These include the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the crises and military interventions in Libya and Mali, the United States’ disenchantment with large military interventions and its rebalancing towards Asia, and the continuing conflict in Syria.

With this in mind, a reassessment of the EU’s place within this changed environment is certainly needed – and as Sven Biscop recently wrote for International Affairs, a ‘strategic anniversary’ should never be wasted, 10 years after the first European Security Strategy. However, the forthcoming European Council is unlikely to deliver any significant development from a strategic standpoint. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A more realistic and positive outcome of the Council would be to refocus the EU’s efforts on more achievable and pragmatic measures, instead of grand ideas and programmes which will most likely fail.

The European Council is set to focus on ‘operational effectiveness’, ‘defence capabilities’ and ‘a stronger European defence industry’. Recent events have demonstrated the failures and limits of the EU in these three areas:

  • Operational effectiveness: The military operations in Mali proved successful but were in fact largely led by France, with crucial assistance from the US and limited support from a number of EU member states. Even the director general of the EU Military Staff General Ton van Osch himself declared that ‘Mali would have been in a catastrophic situation had France not intervened. We aimed to launch a training mission. But we were too slow to react.’

  • Military capabilities: The last decade has been marked by delays, cancellations and cost overruns in large EU armaments programmes, including the A400M. The ambitious ‘Pooling and Sharing’ and ‘Smart Defence’ initiatives of the EU and NATO have also failed to deliver significant results, despite the European Defence Agency and NATO Allied Command Transformation’s best efforts.

  • A stronger European defence industry: The cancelled merger of October 2012 between BAE and EADS shed light on the range of obstacles in this area and the entrenched differences between the three main players in Europe in models of governance of these strategic assets.

Reasons for these challenges include disillusionment over the EU, persistent economic pressures, limited territorial threats to the European continent, the inadequacy of solely military responses to complex challenges related to governance and development, and therefore growing doubts over military interventions and defence spending.

With this in mind, the European Council should instead focus on pragmatic ways in which the Common Security and Defence Policy could contribute to the security of the EU and its interests further afield. On the operational front, this includes a focus on small missions such as police and military training, rule of law, border assistance and election monitoring, using the range of political and civilian tools only the EU can provide. Regarding military capabilities, large programmes have proved too difficult to accomplish on time and on budget. Instead the EU should allow more flexibility by following the spirit of the Permanent Structured Cooperation mechanism of the Lisbon Treaty, thereby encouraging clusters of EU member states to strengthen their cooperation.

The British−French partnership, borne out of the November 2010 Lancaster House treaties on defence and security cooperation, offers the most credible option in this regard. This is of course not a trouble-free relationship. A number of difficulties have emerged:

  • Politically, the political and strategic bond between the British and French governments is not as strong as it was in 2010, and Francois Hollande now faces historically low approval ratings, limiting his room for manoeuvre on many issues.

  • Economically, budgetary pressures that were once a key factor behind the November 2010 agreements still exist – but also act to the detriment of the British−French partnership. In spring 2010, the British government’s decision to abandon the F35C Lightning II conventional jet largely for budgetary reasons reduced interoperability between the two countries’ armed forces.

  • Militarily, intelligence sharing has proved to be a major source of contention between the two nations: according to some British officials, the French see their national intelligence as a sign of prestige and independence and are therefore reluctant to share it; meanwhile, according to some French officials, the United Kingdom’s close relationship with the US and other countries of the ‘Five Eyes’ hampers further cross-Channel cooperation in this domain.

Nevertheless, France and the UK have achieved much progress at the structural and operational levels. From 29 November to 4 December, the British and French armed forces will notably meet again as part of another joint training mission – Exercise Iron Triangle – for the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force. There is now a system and timeline in place for France and the UK to strengthen their cooperation on defence and security matters on the back of the Lancaster House treaties. Despite France’s willingness to rebalance its strategic outlook towards other European partners, the French government is also fully aware of the added value the British-French partnership brings.

In sum, the European Council should not focus on over-ambitious grands projets but instead on targeted and tangible results on defence matters. It should also facilitate the strengthening and careful expansion of the British-French partnership and encourage similar clusters of cooperation across Europe, and with partners outside the EU as well – in this regard, the trilateral strategic initiative on air force cooperation between the US, the UK and France is one example to build upon. The new year will certainly offer opportunities to build on existing initiatives, with the Franco-British summit planned for February and the NATO summit to be held next autumn in the UK.

This article was originally published on European Geostrategy.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback