UK-France security and defence cooperation in a post-Brexit world

SPDS was delighted to organise a conference in partnership with the oldest student society focusing on international affairs at the University of Oxford, the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group (OUSSG). 

From the two sides of the English Channel, this online event brought together both French and British experts to consider what the defence cooperation between the only two nuclear powers in Europe could look like after Brexit.

Since the Lancaster House Treaties of 2010, the defence and security cooperation between the United Kingdom and France has been one of the most extensive defence relationships in the world, ranging from industry and armaments to operational matters, nuclear cooperation, cyber security, data exchange, and even counterterrorism. But what does Brexit mean for the bilateral security and defence cooperation between the UK and France? And what does it imply for Europe? The UK and France were at the vanguard of European security and defence policy with the 1998 Saint-Malo declaration. Will Brexit jeopardise these efforts, or on the contrary become the enabler of a stronger European defence? 

To answer those questions, we welcomed :

  • Contre-Amiral Luc Pages, Former Defence Attaché at the French Embassy in London
  • Dr Benedict Wilkinson, senior researcher at RAND Corporation and former director of research at the Policy Institute of King’s College London, expert in defence and security issues
  • Dr Alice Pannier, researcher at IFRI (Institut Français des Relations Internationales), expert in defence policy in Europe
  1. Background: according to you, what have been the most significant aspects and instances of Franco-British security & defence cooperation prior to Brexit?

Contre-Amiral Luc Pages : prior to Brexit, the Lancaster House Treaties, signed in 2010, were a key milestone: both countries agreed to structure their bilateral relationship. The specificity of this cooperation relies on the nuclear element, unlike most military and defence cooperation initiatives built in Europe. As a result, 10,000 troops operating on land and sea have been brought together in a decade. The defence cooperation has also relied on France and the UK’s mutual dependency, especially in the industrial realm; it thus has to be seen how Brexit will impact this dependency. 

Dr. Alice Pannier: It must be added that the two countries have committed for 50 years to share infrastructures to conduct simulations of nuclear tests. This long-lasting commitment explains why the defence cooperation between the UK and France has been institutionalised through bilateral treaties. Even if Brexit undermines this relationship, France and the UK share needs, interests, history (imperial past), financial & budgetary power. On this aspect, a comparison can be made with the less important bilateral cooperation between France and Germany. Contre-Amiral Luc Pages added that the two countries even shared an expeditionary mindset, whereas Dr Benedict Wilkinson underlined that they have a similar threat assessment. 

Dr Alice Pannier : The intertwining of vital and circumstantial interests must also be underlined: Brexit will impact circumstantial interests but not the vital ones (i.e. survival of the state and its population). From now on, interests collide more and more: while France is becoming a leading EU player, the UK is getting closer to NATO. Big initiatives were pushed together before Brexit, such as the European Defense Fund.

Dr Benedict Wilkinson  : The AUKUS deal is not surprising as it corresponds to British declared plans in a post-Brexit era.  The UK is trying to organize itself in the European Defense initiative. However, there is a risk of tit for tat as well as of deterioration of trust between the two countries in the following years. Alice Pannier, agreeing with Dr Wilkinson’s sayings, added that the importance of memories and narratives for the cooperation must not be forgotten. As for Contre-Amiral Luc Pages, he suggested that the British issue of prosperity and competitiveness has had an impact on military cooperation, and thus on trust.

  1. Do you think that the rise of China will have an impact on the relationship?

Alice Pannier : The Russian threat comes before China for the UK. There is no misunderstanding on why the UK participated in the AUKUS deal directed towards China, but the problem lies in the absence of cooperation between the UK and the EU : the UK  was not seen as contributing to European security. However, the AUKUS partnership showed Europeans that the UK would not become pro-China. 

Contre-Amiral Luc Pages: UK will play a greater role within NATO. This realignment towards the US more than towards European countries raises questions about whether this tendency towards bipolarisation will be strengthened or whether an equilibrium with China will emerge. As for the Indo-Pacific, France and the UK share common grounds, especially in the realm of sealines (communication) and of the respect of the rules of law.

  1. Which role for France and the UK in European strategic autonomy?

Alice Pannier : The UK pushed forward some initiatives prior to Brexit, but did not support institutional ones; in fact, it is still hard to build European defense because of the reluctance from Poland, Netherlands and Hungary, and Brexit hindered the accomplishment of French initiatives. As France is isolated in NATO, Alice Pannier is not optimistic regarding European Defense perspectives.

Contre-Amiral Luc Pages declared that there is a misunderstanding: When one speaks of strategic autonomy, it is not clear whether one refers to decisions or actions. This unclarity impacts the need for operational means. Sharing a common culture in order to assess the world is crucial to agree on shared interests, and eventually act. France is trying to build such a common culture, but the process is only at its beginning.

Dr Benedict Wilkinson argues that there is a need for a third treaty between France and the UK. 

The multiple questions asked by our audience allowed our panel to discuss other issues. For instance, they tackled the role of external actors such as the EU and the USA in the bilateral relationship. 

Dr Alice Pannier reminded the audience that it is complicated to compare the US defense spendings to the ones of other countries. She added that the US can play a detrimental role on the defense spendings of European states, especially because its industrial interests come first. But she also explained that the US has played a rather positive role in the relationship, thanks to its participation in trilateral relations ; however, it also encouraged Franco-british competition in their relations in Washington. 

Contre-Amiral Luc Pages added that the European defense industry needed to become more efficient in order to compete with the American industry. On the EU topic, Dr Alice Pannier explained that the EU is comfortable with a military relationship with the UK through France. Contre-Amiral Luc Pages added that it would be complicated for the UK to have bilateral military relations with every European state similar to Franco-British cooperation.

The panel also answered questions about the AUKUS crisis. Contre-Amiral Luc Pages made the assumption that not recalling the French ambassador to the UK could have meant that Paris considered that London had not been very important in the deal. On the contrary, Dr Alice Pannier stated that this decision could also be based on the assumption that the UK was judged more cooperative and transparent than the US and Australia. She also underlined the impact of the Franco-British rivalry around fisheries in the English Channel, where both parties played the populist chord : their ill-considered declarations risk negatively impacting the relationship in the long run. 

Our speakers also discussed the commonalities between the strategic interests of the two countries. Contre-Amiral Luc Pages  pointed in particular to Russia and China, which are common competitors, although France and the UK do not address these threats in the same way. Contre-Amiral Luc Pages also stressed that these countries could work together to develop new international regulations. Dr Alice Pannier agreed, and used the example of cooperation at the UN Security Council, stressing that both countries must make an effort to consult in order to reach consensus with their other partners. Finally, she argued that the two countries could advance together in the cyber and space fields.

The last question dealt with the affordability of two different programs : the European Future Combat Air System and the British Tempest. Contre-Amiral Luc Pages stated that it was too early to evaluate whether the programs will join at some point or not, noting that this decision would depend on a careful balance between their respective national interests.

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