Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Could a Franco-British military be the start of an EU army?

Today’s agreement for military cooperation between the UK and France may or may not be as “historic” as the media is claiming today – but it all seems to depend on which side of the channel you’re on. In the UK, political leaders have been keen to stress the “pragmatic” nature of the relationship between the two countries who are both pursuing austerity measures and looking for cuts wherever they can. The suggestion from Prime Minister David Cameron almost seems to be that this is a temporary arrangement. Meanwhile Nicolas Sarkozy and other French leaders are telling their newspapers that this is a “moment of history” and the start of a “long-term relationship” that essentially commits the two to work together for 50 years.

So who’s right? The answer is that it will be very dependent on what type of relationship the UK and France have over the next 50 years. After all, military agreements like this have been signed between the two countries before which came to nothing. Most famously, a more general agreement was made between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac before their dramatic falling out over the Iraq War put an end to all that. So who’s to say that this agreement won’t also be scrapped as soon as the two countries differ again on foreign policy?

The French are keen to point out that the big difference here is the specifics of this agreement, the only one of its kind in Europe. They have committed to conduct training for their troops together and to essentially assemble a 10,000-strong joint army. They will share two aircraft carriers and cooperate to develop drones, satellites and communications technology. Most importantly, they have agreed to pool their nuclear resources and build a joint nuclear testing facility. This later part implies a tremendous amount of trust between Paris and London, as nuclear capability is at the core of their military strength.

But it’s not hard to see why it’s in the best interest of each country to pool their resources. Both countries realise they can no longer maintain their military position in the world independently in the 21st century – but together they possibly could. Nuclear deterrents are expensive, and maintaining the systems has been costly for both countries, even before the economic crisis hit.

But the big question is this – is this a permanent relationship, or not? There were several backbench eurosceptic conservative MPs complaining about the agreement today which they said “came out of the ether” (a rather absurd claim as this has been in the news for months). Their big complaint – or conspiracy theory as Downing Street might put it – is that this is just the beginning of an EU army. The British prime minister may dismiss such fears as ridiculous, but perhaps the reason these fears are being stoked is because it is undeniably a logical end point for this relationship. The UK and France each spend among the highest percentage of their GDP on their military in the world, around 2.5% each. This dwarfs military spending by any other EU state, and in fact together France and the UK make up 50% of total EU military spending (and are the only two nuclear-armed member states).

In other words, a Franco-British military would be a logical building point for an EU army, if such a thing were desired. Indeed if any such thing was envisaged, it would depend on effective cooperation between the EU’s two main military powers. So if the two nations were to test the waters with military cooperation over a decade or two, it might be an interesting experiment for whether an EU army could work. Based on comments from French officials made today, they may see it in this way. They certainly have never made their theoretical desire for an EU army a secret in the past. In Germany as well, both officials and the German media have praised the agreement as "an example for the rest of Europe" that could provide the blueprint for common European defense. But while such sentiments seem logical on the continent, the idea of a European army is anathema to the British ear.

Of course, how could there be an EU army when there is no EU foreign policy? That’s the key question, and at the moment there is no EU foreign policy, though the new European External Action Service may eventually become such a thing. But given that the EU’s most recent disunity over foreign policy in the form of the Iraq War was embodied by the Franco-British split, a harmonious military relationship between the UK and France going forward might make other EU states think more seriously about a united EU military policy. But for the moment, the British are keen to stress that if there is such a difference in foreign policy in the coming years, each side is free to pursue action on their own without any repercussions. The question will be, are any such big differences around the corner?

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