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France and CSDP: a tin of paint and a can of worms

© Stan Shebs

Image credit: Stan Shebs

At the end of the 1990s, a British manufacturer named Ronseal rose to fame for claiming in an advert that its wood-dye ‘did exactly what it says on the tin’. At roughly the same time, a nascent common policy in the area of defence was being set up in Europe – which ultimately blossomed into what is presently known as Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Alone almost in Europe, France upholds today a sufficient degree of interest, expectation, ambition and wherewithal to have the CSDP ‘do what it says on the tin’.

France believes that a Common Security and Defence Policy should have to do with security and defence. It also believes that CSDP should be a policy for Europeans to do things together in these two areas. In contrast, most of its European partners either do not, or cannot. Germany can but will not, despite some recent encouraging noises coming from Berlin and Munich. Belgium does, but cannot – and is planning to cut its defence budget by 10%, barely two months after pledging the opposite at the NATO Summit in Newport. The UK has entered a different mental universe altogether with the forthcoming 2015 general election in May – the very mention of Europe is fraught, never mind in a phrase that includes the word defence. Most other European countries simply delegate their strategic thinking, security policy and defence procurement to the United States.

France’s defence policy is still built from the ground up on the opposite assumption. It aims to guarantee that France’s capacity to make autonomous decisions based on independent intelligence, and the country’s capacity to act of its own accord – if need be by entering an operational theatre on its own. This commitment stems from the global role that France considers it still ought to play in the international arena. With French power on the wane, the CSDP is seen as one of the channels and vectors of this global role.

How such ambitions translate into reality is at times less obvious. Despite repeated assaults from the Ministry of Finance, the French defence budget has held up quite well to date. The latest military programming law (2014-19) somehow managed to square the circle and avoid any irreversible choices. It may even yet be abided by, which would certainly be a first. But the commitment to maintaining a full-spectrum force is wearing dangerously thin. The latest French White Paper, by ultimately choosing not to choose, may have compounded the issue.

In parallel, France has invested time and energy over the past few years into CSDP, with varying degrees of success. They French tried, and mostly failed, to get the European Security Strategy updated in 2008, put forth a number of institutional proposals in 2011 with other Weimar countries (Germany and Poland), and were active in the run-up to the 2013 December European Council on defence. France has learnt lessons from these precedents and has recently avoided expending energy in strategic or institutional debates that are not likely to garner any consensus, especially from across the Channel. In fact, it has paradoxically adopted a rather Anglo-Saxon approach in recent times: incremental, pragmatic, and very much focused on capabilities.

However there is still one crippling ill that besets the French perspective on CSDP: France has yet to genuinely realise that other European countries may not necessarily see things in quite the same way. In particular, that not all countries want a Europe puissance, nor even have a proper translation for what Europe de la défense means in the French mental universe. When countries do have roughly the same idea as France does of what CSDP should be, like Poland, chances are they will have a fairly strong – and different – opinion of what it should look like. Both countries see eye to eye on the fact that the CSDP should do what it says on the tin – i.e. defence and security. But under the tin, France will look south when Poland will look east. This is usually when the tin of paint becomes a can of worms. Europeans put what they will under the label CSDP – different expectations, perceptions, preoccupations and ambitions – which French policy has as yet neither truly accepted nor internalised.

This shows through when France, instead of investing precious political capital in consensus-building before deploying African operations, insists on telling its European partners they are ‘freeriding’ on French security efforts in the Sahel. After some finger-pointing, it usually ends up going cap in hand to Brussels to ask for funding for its African endeavours, and then tries to build consensus a posteriori. This is not necessarily the best way to go about it.

France’s work in the Sahel is crucially important for Europe – terrorism and migration are clearly issues that affect Europe as a whole, and not one of its member states. But by acting as it does, it gives off the impression that it is bullying the smaller countries into buying into the French position. In short, that CSDP is common, as long as it is common along French lines. The state of the current ‘European’ effort in the Central African Republic shows the limits of such policy. The issue with the French vision of CSDP is therefore not with security or with defence. It is with how France can let CSDP exist as a genuinely common policy, the way it says so on the tin.

Vol. 7, No. 2 (2015)


The CSDP: National Perspectives series, Article 9 (France No. 1).

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