18th Jan 2019

Will France squander its lead on European defence?

  • Paris skyline (Photo: Lisa Kline1)

For the first time in five years, EU leaders will this week discuss defence co-operation.

And, this time round, the summit will have a distinctly Gallic flavour. With Britain’s future in the bloc unclear and its active participation in international operations even more so, Paris is finally in the lead.

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It makes a change from 2003 when, in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, France used a European strategic discussion to reassert its parity with Britain.

And it makes a change from 2008 when the French used a follow-up European strategic review to make up for the failure of its earlier efforts.


So can we now expect a new European strategic discussion, led by the bloc’s undisputed grande nation?

It seems not.

With its predominance now secured, France seems to have developed a sudden scepticism about the necessity for comprehensive top-down guidance in the EU’s external operations.

Despite the obvious need to face up to Europe-wide funding cuts and mutual dependence, not to mention an abrupt shift in the EU’s international environment, Paris is now promoting a pragmatic, bottom-up approach to the summit discussion.


If it all sounds familiar, it is because it is.

We have heard this tune before from the British: European cooperation is to be nothing more than an add-on to national action, and should not be allowed to interfere with its members’ basic autonomy.

Indeed, France has placed the tenet of "strategic autonomy’" at the heart of its new strategic documents, stressing the need to guard its freedom of assessment, decision and action, and to modernise three matching capabilities - deterrence, intelligence and power projection.

What stands out is that Paris has not really explained how it intends to use this autonomy.

Although in its strategies it name-checks Africa, for instance, it is known to be keen to extricate itself from the continent. But to what end?

If suspicions are accurate and its goal is simply to retain its capacity to react to international pressures, Paris might usefully remember one thing.

There is a simple reason why it is now top dog and the UK marginal: Britain’s pursuit of autonomy qua autonomy has actually reduced its own options and clout.


The UK’s apparent reluctance to lock itself into long-term strategic constraints at the national level or in Europe have left it vulnerable to being sucked into international actions beyond its means or ken.

The government’s response has been to push responsibility for international action to parliament. And the result is strategic uncertainty and gridlock.


France appears to be ignoring this lesson, as is apparent in its response to one overriding constraint - cash.

Paris intends to freeze annual defence spending at below €30 billion until 2016, and halve its deployable land forces to 15,000. Yet, it repeats the mantra that it will not be constrained by the funding shortfall. It will simply spend better.

The goal seems to be a kind of cut-price autonomy, achieved by means such as tailoring its force-projection responses according to international demands.

So confident is it, that it views the Nato threshold of 2 percent of GDP for military expenditure (compared to current 1.5%) as achievable in the longer term, as if the current economic slowdown was nothing more than a slight blip.

The same wishful thinking is playing out when it comes to European interdependence, which again Paris perceives not as a constraint but a clever means of building its autonomy.


In its April White Book and December Military Programming Law, Paris falls back on the idea that a "pooling and sharing" of capabilities at the European level will offset domestic cuts: Europeans will learn to focus on their individual strengths, building resources that complement each other.

But this dream of co-ordinated differentiation ignores a simple truth: European states cannot specialise in a co-operative way without recognising their reliance on each other.

Nor, moreover, can they expect each other to step in as they desire without a basic agreement on common goals.


If Paris ignores these facts, it will effectively be allowing others to make choices for it.

Already its embrace of international defence sales to make up for domestic funding shortfalls is pulling it in new directions. And it has allowed itself to be tugged back into Africa despite its President’s repeated promises and its new funding guidelines.

What if a large-scale crisis now starts in South Sudan in the wake of an alleged coup attempt?

France’s overstretched budget, limited historical role and weak European partnerships are no brake to its falling headlong into an intervention.

That scenario ought really to concentrate minds in France.

Choice almost by definition means closing off options.

Only by closing off certain options and accepting constraints can the EU member states hope to spend better or to make European cooperation work properly.

Paris has a matter of days to accept this and avert following the British path.

Nathan Dufour is an analyst and Roderick Parkes is the head of the Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw

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