And what if France becomes NATO’s no.2 (update)

Errors, notably concerning the organisation of NATO’s military committee, unfortunately slipped into the article we published on 11 January. This update adds corrective details supplied to us by a senior source in the Alliance.


Well here’s a rather unexpected consequence of Brexit: the United Kingdom could lose its traditional NATO number 2 slot, replaced by another European country. Or so believes British think tank, Royal United Services (RUSI), which writes in a report that: “There is already discussion of the possibility that the position of NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander (DSACEUR), which the UK has held since 1951, might be transferred to a NATO member that remains part of the EU.”

British General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, current DSACEUR (Photo credit: SHAPE Public Affairs Office)


According to The Times daily newspaper, France is the most likely to profit from Brexit. It reports that towards the end of last year an “unofficial French delegation visited Washington to lobby US officials, arguing that their armed forces were better placed than their British counterparts to be America’s special ally in Europe after Brexit.” This news, widely reported in the British press, is however, a little biased.


Quick reminder. At the summit of the military command of the Alliance lies the Military Committee, composed of the defence chiefs of staff of the 28 Member States, chaired by Czech General Petr Pavel. The second level is constituted by Allied Command Operations (ACO) directed since 1951 by a U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), and by the Allied Command Transformation (ACT), headed since 2009 by… a French general. Notably responsible for strategy and capacity development, ACT has been directed since 30 September 2015 by French Air Force General Denis Mercier. Stricto sensu, France is not only already “NATO n°2” but also occupies a higher rank than that of the DSACEUR, General Adrian Bradshaw.


Whether true or not, the scenario outlined by the British media at least highlights a real problem. An eventual British withdrawal would indeed threaten the current structural balance and would make it impossible to keep the only two European nuclear powers at the Alliance’s highest decisional level. On the other hand, maintaining a British officer at this post compromises the central role of DSACEUR, that is conducting certain EU missions organised under the ‘Berlin Plus’ arrangements. These allow the European Union Force (EUFOR) to have access to NATO assets, for example in Bosnia, where France is part of the Althea EUFOR operation.

Adopted in 1999 “these arrangements could easily be modified to allow the United Kingdom to keep its post,” our NATO source explained. The Alliance could also choose to return to the pre-1994 arrangement by re-introducing a second DSACEUR position reserved at that time for a German general. Or, adds RUSI, allow the UK access to the position of SACEUR.


So, straw fire or future structural crisis? The answer doesn’t really matter, when the very fact of posing the question already implies a certainty: Brexit will have repercussions on the United Kingdom’s role and influence in NATO.