Franco-British defence cooperation on the anniversary of Lancaster House: What can a Treaty produce in five years?

This post was written Alice Pannier, PhD Candidate at Sciences Po & King’s College London and currently visiting fellow at Cambridge University, Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS). It is co-published with the blog CRIAViews.

PM David Cameron (right), NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil (centre) and French President Nicholas Sarkozy (left) in Benghazi, Libya. The three had just addressed a crowd in Liberty Square in the city. PA copyright.

British PM D. Cameron (right), NTC Chairman M.A. Jalil (centre) and French President N. Sarkozy (left) in Benghazi, Libya. PA copyright.

On 2 November 2010, the French and British heads of state and government signed the Lancaster House Treaty aimed at enhancing their bilateral cooperation in all areas of defence and security, Since, the Internet has regularly offered pieces assessing the progress made over the first few years of the treaty’s entry into force. Analyses of facts have been harsh: the accord is largely doomed to “deliver little”. In public debates, the signing of the treaties aroused fears of lost sovereignty and of a fatal blow to the EU security and defence policy or to the relationship with Germany.

On the contrary, both the French and British governments have since advertised the harmony and smooth progress of the Franco-British defence relationship. The treaty receives rare public treatment during short windows of “Strategic communication” during: bilateral summits, military exercises, arms fairs or even the end of a joint military intervention. On such occasions, the discourses offer an idealised view of the bilateral relationship and announce further ambitious cooperative programmes.

Arguably, policy-makers’ or commentators’ discourse has been influenced, in one direction or another, by the underlying discourse of similarity, or even twinnship between France and Britain. According to a widely accepted narrative, history and culture have given France and the UK all the good reasons to be close allies and all the good reasons to fail being so. This narrative arguably raises expectations among the actors involved in this cooperation, thus encouraging further clear-cut and often dogmatic discourses on the possible output of the bilateral treaty. Expectations were further reinforced by the feeling of urgency stemming from the current economic hardship and the need to make savings through cooperation.

The examples we have from strongly institutionalised bilateral relationships indicate that cooperation practices develop and reinforce over time. Further, cooperation and regime theory illustrate that, in the absence of enforcement mechanisms, parties to a treaty are unlikely to change their behaviour significantly. Bilateral defence agreements like the Lancaster House Treaty lack such enforcement mechanisms. This article thus looks, beyond the simplifying conflict-harmony narratives, at the progress made under the Treaty in its five years of existence.

What has the treaty produced?

The letter of the Treaty indicated the two states’ commitment to pursue cooperation in two main areas of conventional defence: the ability of their armed forces to work together and deploy in operations (Art.2 and 5), and joint procurement together with the fostering of defence industrial integration (Art.6, 7, 8 and 9). The signing of the Treaty was accompanied by a Summit Declaration listing a dozen of specific projects to be undertaken bilaterally.

Since 2010, two significant projects have failed. First, the integrated carrier group was abandoned in May 2012, with the British government’s decision (it seems, for budgetary reasons) to opt for a short-take off, vertical-landing version of the American F-35 fighter jet that are not equivalent to the catapult system of the French aircraft carrier, thus limiting the extent of to which the Navies can integrate their carrier strike capabilities. The second failure concerns medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drones, where the French government eventually opted for buying readily available American Reapers. This decision resulted from incapacity to choose among several potential industrial partners, including the Germans of EADS and the British of BAE Systems. Nevertheless, other capability projects are still being discussed between France and the UK, such as tactical drones and armoured vehicles.

Three central projects were given the green light at the January 2014 summit: the anti-ship missile Sea Venom with an integrated bilateral development and production contract awarded to MBDA, an anti-mine underwater system with a small contract to launch the demonstration phase placed in 2015, and “Future combat air systems” with a joint demonstration programme involving Dassault and BAE together with four other French and British companies.

On the operational side, the French and British Ministries of Defence have engaged in the development of a non-permanent Combined joint expeditionary force (CJEF), to be available as a first-entry force for short, high-intensity operations. Most of the work since 2010 has been dedicated to discussing the details of the plan, considering the scenarios in which the force could be used, notably pondering on the relationship of the bilateral force with other individual allies and regional alliances. While the “initial validation of concept” of the force was declared in June 2015, there remain a number of difficulties, notably in terms of doctrinal differences, language, and more importantly the exchange of information due to system incompatibilities and the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing agreement of which France is not part. Nonetheless, the bilateral work done over the past five years among the French and British militaries, through working group meetings and exercises, has permitted to reach a much higher level of interoperability. The bilateral intervention in Libya (2011) and the French-led operations in Mali (since January 2013) and the Central African Republic (since December 2013) have also challenged the military partnership while at the same time demonstrating political commitment to its continuation.

If all of this is attributable to the treaty, it could be argued that the latter has indeed, already “delivered”, within the limits inherent to treaties with no enforcement mechanism. But how much of this has happened because of the treaty? Industrial collaborations and military exercises and interventions of course happen between all European states regardless of specific institutionalisation. In the conventional domain, only the on-going integration of the missile sector, too, requires legal backing in the form of intergovernmental agreements to be signed as supplementary clauses to the treaty. And in fact, only one article of the Treaty is actually binding (Art.6, §1, guaranteeing mutual access to shared equipment and facilities) the rest of the agreement is declaratory and unspecific. That being, progress in the projects announced at the summit is generally assessed against the Treaty itself, suggesting the effectiveness of its symbolic value. And it can be said that the Treaty has, since 2010, been reified and even personified, as it has argued it must be “kept alive”.

Now, what has the treaty not produced?

Firstly, and obviously, it has not prevented the two governments from acting according to what they perceive to be in their independent national interests, as is evident from the procurement decisions mentioned above. Secondly, the treaty has not destroyed the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). CSDP missions have indeed been launched— at France’s insistence— in Mali and in the Central African Republic. Notably, the Franco-British pact has not made the UK any more pro-CSDP, as was evident in the British opposition to launching EUFOR Libya in 2011. Thirdly, the treaty has not created bilateral UK-French leadership in the EU or NATO, nor has it led to the harmonisation of their military cultures (notably when it comes to rules of engagement and decision-making processes). Fourthly, the treaty has not turned France away from Germany and more towards the United States, given that this was already the case already before 2010. Finally, it will not affected the two states’ sovereignty but only their access to certain technologies and infrastructures in limited fields of nuclear and missile technologies. And this is notably because the UK is already and primarily linked primarily to the US for its nuclear deterrent.

Finally, the treaty has had one significant unintended consequence: Lancaster House has given birth to a new sub-field and research agenda in Europe, with an array of conferencesseminarsjournal special issues and PhD theses covering Franco-British relations and bilateral or “minilateral” defence cooperations. Certainly from that perspective, like the CSDP in the 2000s, Lancaster House has delivered.

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