What would happen to Franco-British defence cooperation in case of a “Brexit”, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union? The question is legitimate because there are many defence links between London and Paris. Their cooperation is narrow and will notably be illustrated at the “Franco-British summit in early March, a large part of which will be centred on questions of security, defence and on joint weapons systems such as the future combat air system (FCAS) and missiles programmes,” France’s ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann recently told the French Senate defence committee. She was briefing them both about Brexit and its possible affect on defence cooperation, and the 2015 British Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).
The SDSR, the equivalent of France’s White Paper on defence published every five years, has caused some concern in the French Senate. Introducing a sharp change from the previous SDSR, the 2015 version sees a global resurgence of British military means. This is seen as “worrying” by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, president of the Senate, who wonders whether the United Kingdom has the means to achieve the objectives laid out in the document.
Even if the SDSR confirms France in its role as the United Kingdom’s strategic ally, the document sets out “a growth in military means with the perspective of a defence budget representing 2% of GDP as set out by NATO” and “an armed forces format that includes a renovated nuclear deterrent with £40bn of investments to renew the nuclear submarines,” said Raffarin. The programme worries the French hemicycle because even if these decisions are “reasonably close to those of France whether compared to the White Paper or the July update to our military programme law [….] the ambitions set out by the British are much greater than ours,” worries Senator Jacques Gautier. To keep up, France would have to make a bigger financial effort, a scenario difficult to imagine given the current economic situation.
Even if the British “don’t like the concept of European defence”, nevertheless “when we ask them to go they go, whether it be to Mali or […] the Mediterranean […], in reality they help us,” the ambassador reassured the senators. She said the impression given from the other side of the Channel is falsely worrying and she stressed the closeness of bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
She mentioned the decisions taken when the Lancaster House Treaties were signed in 2010 by Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron whose explicit bilateralism aims at “Europeanism without the European Union.” As a direct consequence of these treaties “the joint expeditionary forces will be fully operational this spring. They involve 1,000 personnel which is far from being negligible,” Bermann added. Set up outwith the European project, the links between Paris and London would very certainly resist the shock of a possible “Brexit”.
This diagnosis is shared by the Senate defence commission: “I do not all all buy the argument that if they leave Europe then we lose a defence partner. We do not lose a defence partner: things will simply not happen in the framework that we had imagined and that we’re having trouble building with them anyway,” said Senator Daniel Reiner, echoing the declarations made earlier by the ambassador.