SECURITY & DEFENCE
Why their EU and NATO partners may look askance at the Franco-British defence pact
Strengthening the military outreach of Europe's two major defence forces has genuine attractions, says former UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon. But he warns that others in Europe may see it as a protectionist device favouring French and British defence giants
At first sight a defence co-operation agreement between the United Kingdom and France looks good for Europe. Not many people would have predicted before Britain’s general election in May of last year that a euro-sceptical prime minister, at the head of a profoundly anti-European Conservative Party, would be prepared to share some of Britain’s most important military capabilities with a European neighbour. And that it should be with France, so frequently the butt of British and American media attacks of the “cheese eating surrender monkeys” variety, can be seen as more remarkable still; a fundamental about turn in defence positioning, away from the United States and towards the European continent.
After last November's signing ceremony, French officials were briefing hard that closer collaboration between France and the UK is essential if Europe is to become a bigger military player, arguing that the two countries together spend 45% of Europe’s total military budget, have 55% of its operational forces and contribute some 75% of its military research and technology spending.
Ever since these Anglo-French summits began, it has been instructive to contrast the way their results are presented on the two sides of the Channel. The British approach, on this latest occasion, was to emphasise the way in which two sovereign nations were voluntarily joining together for their mutual benefit in order to improve their joint military capabilities. The word “Europe” did not feature strongly in British briefings to journalists.
It has nevertheless been argued that improving the deployable capabilities of Europe’s two largest military powers must be good for European defence. It is said that improving the way in which French and British forces work together must be good for European co-operation in NATO and the EU. The challenge of rapid deployment to deal with unforeseen threats around the world has stretched all countries and international organisations in recent years. By agreeing to develop a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force, improve maritime task force co-operation around the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and establish joint military doctrine and training programmes, it is argued that the foundations are being laid for the possibility of a genuinely integrated Franco-British force being deployed rapidly to wherever it is needed in the world.
Those of a more sceptical disposition might, however, question the extent to which this agreement actually increases the overall firepower available to the two countries. The controversial aircraft carriers are a case in point. Britain ordered and agreed to build and pay for two new carriers to project force around the world, specifically so that one would always be available if the other was being maintained or re-fitted. As the result of the defence spending cuts announced last October by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, as part of the Defence and Security Review, it now looks as if the second carrier will be mothballed or sold-off, and the Charles de Gaulle drafted in through the new Anglo-French defence agreement to provide cover in a crisis. Anyone familiar with the maintenance schedule of this French nuclear-powered carrier will wonder whether that is going to be sufficient cover, and will also wonder how the maintenance programmes of two very differently propelled ships will be aligned. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy did not do much to enhance the depth of the new co-operation pact when he pointedly refused to say whether he would permit the Charles de Gaulle to be sent to defend the Falkland Islands in the event of another Argentine invasion.
Such co-operation works both ways, of course. Would Britain be willing to allow the use of its carrier and put the lives of its service personnel at risk on a purely French operation that served no British interest, and was perhaps even opposed by its own people? These questions expose the limits of a purely bi-lateral agreement; unless there is a real identity of interest involved between the two countries.
That is why other Europeans will be looking at this agreement and asking what it means for them and, beyond the rhetoric, what it really means for European defence co-operation. Europe is increasingly being left behind militarily as the result of the reluctance of EU and European NATO member states to actually pay for their political ambitions around the world. The basic arguments for enhanced European co-operation remain strong – at a time of declining defence budgets it makes no sense to duplicate some military capabilities nationally when other much needed capabilities are in seriously short supply. That is why the EU Helsinki Headline Goal initiative begun in 2003, and restated in 2010, continues to be crucial for Europe as a whole. By identifying key capabilities in short supply, efforts can be made right across the EU to identify priorities for Europe. The European Defence Agency has the task of finding ways of filling the gaps in European military capabilities. It is not clear to what extent, if at all, this work was considered in the drafting of the Anglo-French agreement.
It is, moreover, difficult to see how this European process is helped by a purely bi-lateral agreement between two countries apparently seeking to offset the impact of their own domestic defence cuts. The EU has after all signed up to processes where it agrees collectively to address these issues. It might well be argued that practical progress in the EU has not matched the political rhetoric, but there is at least a process in place.
Those of a still more cynical disposition might look at the Anglo-French agreement and wonder whether this is about Europe at all. What exactly is meant by the “bi-lateral co-operation on the acquisition of equipment and technology” and developing a “stronger defence and industrial and technology base”? This looks like Anglo-French protectionism. Both countries still have strong defence industries, so does the agreement mean that they intend to develop their own national champions at the expense of wider European defence co-operation? What does that mean for European defence companies based in Germany, Spain or Italy? Will they be excluded from future defence projects when there is a French or British bidder?
The United Kingdom has always argued that its own defence market is open to competition. Certainly some of its domestic companies complain that this is too much the case, as they change their emphasis to take advantage of the apparently more generous profit margins available in the United States. France has taken a much more traditional approach, favouring its national champions, sometimes even at the expense of European projects such as Eurofighter.
It would be ironic if Britain and France were now trying to build a degree of defence protectionism into their new relationship, just at the time when the EU is trying to open up defence and security procurement to greater competition. The EU's new Defence and Security Directive, which will come into force on August 21 this year, is aimed at promoting competition in the procurement of defence and security equipment in the European Single Market. It means that the European Commission is to have a direct say in significant defence decisions. The creation of a transparent, open and competitive market in defence equipment has long been an ambition of the Commission as it has always argued that the broad competition principles of the EU apply equally to defence procurement as elsewhere.
Countries like Britain and France have not so far generally accepted this approach. They have preferred to control their own decisions so as to be able to favour their national defence champions, or to be able to secure advantageous offset arrangements. The Commission is therefore likely to seek to use the terms of the Directive to threaten both types of arrangements. Indeed, it has already made it clear that in its opinion national preference and offset arrangements have always been contrary to European law. The Directive will also have an impact on all stages of the procurement process, including on component suppliers as well as the finished product. Article 21 of the Directive specifically refers to sub-contracting saying: “The successful tenderer shall be free to select its sub-contractors.... and shall in particular not be required to discriminate against potential sub-contractors on grounds of nationality”.
Armed with this new competition weapon, the European Commission, along with other EU member states. will be looking suspiciously at the words of the Anglo-French defence agreement to see whether what it appears to say is put into practice. Nothing would more undermine the case for European defence co-operation than a sense that the two leading European nations in the area of defence were trying to carve-up the defence market between them.
At a time of significant cuts in defence spending on both sides of the Channel, it must make sense for defence planners in Paris and London to look at ways in which vital military capabilities can be protected. Pooling or sharing such capabilities, if the required political agreements on use can be secured, similarly makes sense for the two countries involved. That is unlikely to damage European military capabilities at a time when spending cuts are further weakening what Europe can contribute in a crisis. What is much less clear is what it will do to enhance the development of European capabilities once other European countries get the message that when times are tough the two main players will go it alone. Persuading the other EU countries that they should put the European interest before their own national interest will become that much more difficult.