A strategic rubicon

The announcement of a Franco-British defence partnership will be a watershed in European security thinking. Once that Rubicon has been crossed it will raise questions for their EU partners, and perhaps this will have a profound bearing on whether Europe can keep a seat in the global game.

When Julius Caesar led his army back into Italy across the river Rubicon, he knew there was no going back. He was taking a throw of the dice on which everything depended.

Neither French nor British governments will see the defence partnership they will announce at tomorrow’s summit in quite such dramatic terms. The British have, after all, just produced a defence review in which they designate their relationship with the United States as ‘pre-eminent’. And the French have spent the past year wondering how to reconcile a deeper cross-Channel entente with their ambitions for wider European defence.

Nonetheless, tomorrow’s event is a watershed. The width and depth of the specific cooperations to be announced will be unprecedented. But the real significance lies in the implicit recognition by both parties that their individual pretensions to the status of global power will remain sustainable only if they begin pooling their defence efforts and resources. Given their lack of money, they have to make this work; there can be no going back.

For both sides, this is a big and brave departure – and both deserve applause. For the British in particular it has also been a tour de force to manage such a complex negotiation whilst simultaneously conducting a defence review and hacking back an unaffordable defence investment programme.

But where, the question then presses, does this leave the rest of Europe? It is certainly a question preoccupying the Poles, who have designated European defence a key priority for their Presidency of the EU in the latter half of 2011. They have been working with Germans and French – their ‘Weimar Triangle’ partners – to prepare a re-launch of flagging European efforts, possibly using the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions to set up pioneer groups in defence. Under this system, defence cooperation programmes could be restricted to small groups of seriously-committed EU member states, with composition varying domain by domain (ie one group working together on research, another on support, and so on). But will the French now have eyes for anyone other than the British? Will the new cross-Channel entente suck the oxygen out of any other form of European cooperation?

The British, of course, will look at these questions with a certain detachment. The Poles have many admirers in both London and Paris, so something nice will be said about Poland’s ambitions in tomorrow’s Franco-British declaration. But the British, knowing as they do that nothing good ever came out of Brussels especially on defence, will believe it is now down to the continentals to sort themselves out.

Which, of course, is one possible scenario. Depending in part on how willing and able France is to play two boards at the same time, one could envisage the new entente having a galvanising effect on other European partners and encouraging them to make a real new effort at forging closer cooperations, in the absence of the UK, amongst themselves.

Equally possible, however, is the opposite – that the majority reaction in Europe will be in effect to throw in the hand. Public finances are under intense pressure – and it is becoming harder and harder to explain to taxpayers why armed forces should not be cut a whole lot further. There is no serious military threat to Europe; and overseas interventions have been discredited by the Afghan imbroglio. So, many Europeans will feel, if France and Britain want to continue with their anachronistic military posturing, why not leave them to get on with it? Far from galvanising others, the entente could actually encourage what US Defense Secretary Gates has gloomily termed a culture of ‘demilitarisation’ elsewhere in Europe.

The French would not share British unconcern over such developments. They understand, as the British do not, how far their own global power and influence is tied to that of Europe as a whole. In the intense competition of today’s multipolar world, Europeans, like it or not, are in the same boat; and if the others stop rowing not even Britain and France, even pulling together, will be able to make headway.

Which suggests a third, and more hopeful, scenario – that the Franco-British couple will selectively invite those of their EU partners they consider still ‘serious’ about defence to join them – not across the piece, but domain-by-domain, depending in which area the prospective additional partner had a serious contribution to offer. The model would be variable-geometry, small-group, collaborative partnerships, with Britain and France as the ‘constants’ in all groupings and calling the shots. In short, something pretty like the ‘pioneer group’ system proposed by the Lisbon Treaty, but implemented, to assuage the familiar British neuralgia, without reference to ‘Brussels’.

This summit, then, will have consequences, which over time could have a profound bearing on whether European nations and the EU as a whole can keep a seat in the global game, or find themselves progressively elbowed aside by newer, wealthier and more confident players. Whether the consequences are for good or ill will depend both on whether the two protagonists are prepared to open their new alliance, selectively, to other European partners – and on how those partners choose to react. But the die has now been cast – and, for all the uncertainties, it is surely the right gamble to take.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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