Since the end of the colonial era, France has often seen the European Union (EU) as a power multiplier, as Adrian Treacher and others have pointed out. When Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac signed the St Malo declaration in 1998, thereby giving birth to the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), their motivations and objectives differed. Following crises in the Balkans and Rwanda, the United Kingdom (UK) was keen to show the United States (US) that Europe could be relied upon to take on a larger share of the global security burden. On the other hand, France saw ESDP as a way to increase the country’s influence in the world, and its independence from the US.
Things have changed. The now-named Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) remains an official objective of French defence policy, but a much less central and urgent one than it once was. As Olivier de France rightly points out, France is now more willing to stay away from ideological and institutional debates, and act independently, in an incremental, pragmatic, and capability-focused manner. This is the result of a number of significant developments, including the following four:
First: France’s reintegration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) integrated command structure in 2009 and the country’s numerous military deployments in recent years have pulled the French military away from the EU and CSDP. Recent disagreements between the French armed forces and the Elysée over the government’s willingness to introduce a European component in the military mission in Central African Republic confirm this trend.
Second: France has relied on more simple and effective partnerships with the UK, with whom it signed bilateral defence and security cooperation treaties outside of the EU framework in November 2010, and the US, a key military ally in Mali, Libya and in operations across the Sahel.
Third: The CSDP’s own weaknesses and limits so far. Few significant results have been produced since St Malo; strategic differences between EU member states have become increasingly obvious; the Eurozone crisis has had a powerful negative impact, both on the EU’s self-confidence and in capability terms, while European countries have also increasingly focused on economic and internal issues as a result.
Fourth: Germany has been another key factor in France’s change in posture: Germany’s already dominant position within the EU, and its persistent uneasiness with the use of military force have meant that recent French efforts to revive Franco-German and European defence cooperation have produced few results, and have pushed France further away from CSDP. The 2011 letter of intent on military capability development between the two countries constituted more of a political and symbolic declaration than a plan with much substance. While the European Council on Defence of December 2013 produced ambitious plans, delivering on them has proved problematic.
In this context, France is now focusing on more realistic outcomes for CSDP, seeing it as a complementary force focusing on tasks such as training, equipment, and advice as part of the EU’s comprehensive approach. This is arguably a wise and clear departure from the traditional ambitious French position on the EU as a potential military alter ego – with a broader range of tools – to NATO. France was one of the key forces behind the creation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a key tenant of CSDP. However, the two countries favour it less today, having chosen to go on a similar yet bilateral path with the Lancaster House treaties and hoping this will lead to more clusters of defence cooperation across Europe. While UK-French cooperation has had its fair share of challenges since November 2010, it is realistically more likely to produce positive outcomes than a broader, more cumbersome European initiative.
As a result, France is likely to continue favouring close defence and security cooperation with the UK, with which it shares interests, objectives, military capacity and willingness to deploy it, and the US, over yet another revival of “L’Europe de la défense”.
Vol. 7, No. 13 (2015)
The CSDP: National Perspectives series, Article 17 (France No. 2). © It is not possible to republish this article without the express permission of European Geostrategy.