Analyses & Studies

Friends and enemies: Britain and France need each other

Once the fog of Brexit clears, they will rediscover they are actually quite alike.

11 September - Philip Stephens - Financial Times

Credits photo : British prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron have defence interests in common © Reuters

The bloody French! First, they kept us out (of the EU). Now they are making it difficult for us to leave! The British minister’s exasperation can be half-forgiven. Paris is difficult. But then the neuroses that have mapped Britain’s European course have always been bound up in its ties to its nearest continental neighbour.

It has not helped that the General was right. Vetoing Britain’s common market entry in 1963, president De Gaulle declared the English would never cut their ties of dependency to the US. They thought the Commonwealth could replicate empire. So it has come to pass. Flag-waving Brexiters now promise a “special” trade deal with the US alongside their Elizabethan fantasy of a “Global Britain”.

So there is a certain symmetry in the Brexit endgame. De Gaulle’s successor, Emmanuel Macron, is acting tough on the terms of exit. For good reason. He is a convinced European. Theresa May’s government cannot be allowed to walk away with the family silver.

Older rivalries and jealousies are never far below the surface. For France, Brexit is confirmation of Albion’s perfidy. The Brits spy a ruthless attempt by the old adversary to seek narrow advantage by luring banks and businesses to Paris. There is right on both sides. The trouble is that one day the fog of Brexit will clear. France and Britain will rediscover that they are actually quite alike. More, they really do need each other.

Brexit has complicated things, but it has not changed the facts of history, geography, and, dare one say it, of shared national temperament. Paris and London both took a wrong turn in 1956. Their last joint, imperial hurrah was wrecked by the Americans at Suez. France concluded that Europe must become a power equal to and independent of the US and Soviet Union; Britain that it must never again openly defy the Americans. Neither strategy turned out to be a great success.

Fealty to Washington led Britain into the disastrous invasion of Iraq and has left it in thrall to Donald Trump’s belligerent nationalism. Iraq held a different lesson for France: when the chips were down it could not unite the rest of Europe against the US. Nor, as Mr Macron must know, can the French build serious European defence in partnership with a pacifist Germany.

Last month Mr Macron’s diplomatic adviser, Philippe Etienne, set out France’s overarching goals at the London think-tank Chatham House. Unsurprisingly, first on the list was ensuring the immediate security of France and Europe against Islamist terrorism, Russian revisionism, cyber attacks and the rest. Second was the preservation of a rules-based global order.

Everyone grasps the former. Suicide bombers in European cities, Russian tanks turning up in Ukraine and Moscow’s assassins in Salisbury are all readily identifiable threats. The rules-based order can seem an abstract concept. Yet peace and stability — and the selfish interests of most nations — rest on this complex architecture of treaties, norms, standards, and institutions. If, like Britain and France, a nation has interests scattered across the world, the rules are especially important.

What most struck me about Mr Etienne’s remarks was that they could have been given by a senior British adviser. There are different nuances but calculation about the hierarchy of immediate threats and the long-term national interest in the international system are as good as identical.

No one should be surprised. Britain and France have global outlooks and interests. They have sizeable armed forces; and they are willing to use them. They each have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, carrying responsibilities for international security. They are both nuclear weapons states and have comparably sized defence budgets. They are at ease in deploying expeditionary forces. And they are both struggling to match global commitments to diminished national resources.

Britain’s army and air force are being hollowed out by the huge cost of new aircraft carriers and renewal of the US Trident nuclear system. France faces the still heavier burden of modernising its independent nuclear deterrent. The choice is fast becoming one between pooling research, technology and industrial capacity or losing capabilities.

The two countries have already taken some steps along this road, including in highly sensitive nuclear testing. Florence Parly, Mr Macron’s defence minister, wants post-Brexit Britain to join a new European intervention force. Paris and Berlin have set up new EU defence arrangements with a sizeable budget for equipment. None of this is enough. America is waving Europe a long goodbye. What’s required now of Europeans is a leap of imagination or retreat from the world beyond its borders. If France and Britain really want to shape events they will have to do so together.

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