March 4. 2024. 6:06

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Analysis: France and Britain’s relationship built on defence co-operation

France considers defence co-operation the cornerstone of its alliance with Britain and made relaunching defence projects a priority of Friday’s summit between prime minister Rishi Sunak and president Emmanuel Macron.

Relations have been frosty in recent years, because of Brexit and tension over the Northern Ireland protocol, the personalities of recent British prime ministers and especially the formation of the Aukus alliance by the UK, US and Australia in 2021. France was not consulted, and Australia cancelled a €56 billion contract for 12 French submarines, a “betrayal” which still rankles in Paris.

Under the St Malo declaration (1998) and Lancaster House Treaty (2010), France shares more officer exchanges, training and military missions, stopovers and overflights with the UK than with any other country. For the UK, defence co-operation with France is second only to military ties with the US.

“France is the country of Europe with which we collaborate the most on defence and security,” Sunak told Le Figaro on the eve of his trip to Paris, the first to an EU country since he became prime minister. “We have the two biggest armies in Europe, with a global presence.”

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Analysis: France and Britain’s relationship built on defence co-operation

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Both are nuclear powers with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

When he suspended Russia’s participation in the New Start nuclear arms control treaty on February 21st, Vladimir Putin demanded that French and British arsenals be included in any future negotiations. France and Britain are “totally opposed” to the idea, the Élysée said, “because, contrary to the vast US and Russian arsenals, ours are based on the principles of strict sufficiency”.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, insufficient weapons stocks, and the need to prepare for the eventuality of a higher level of conflict, the US “pivot” towards Asia, similar colonial histories and the need to improve relations with the “global south”, are all cited as reasons for stronger defence co-operation.

France and the UK have delivered between a quarter and a third of their land weapons systems to Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine dictates that London and Paris “better co-ordinate their supplies of weapons, their messaging, as well as the complementarity of the UK and EU training missions for the Ukrainian armed forces”, Alice Billon-Galland of Chatham House and Elie Tenenbaum from the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) wrote in a recent study. They suggest the two capitals should prepare together for the Nato summit in Vilnius in July.

Sunak was accompanied by six cabinet ministers, who held bilateral meetings with their French counterparts on Friday. These included defence ministers, Ben Wallace and Sébastien Lecornu. The Élysée said the defence meeting was “meticulously and systematically organised” by the political directors of both ministries, the directors for armament and chiefs of staff of the armed forces.

Current joint defence projects include co-ordinated naval deployments in the Indo-Pacific, the development of an anti-ship cruise missile and attempts to define a role for the Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force established in 2010.

The lead company in the development of the anti-ship missile is MBDA, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of missiles, of which France and Britain are the main shareholders.

Co-operation in the training and equipping of Ukrainian forces is an immediate priority. The two countries are also working to make interoperable the fighter aircraft they are developing, the Future Combat Air System for France, and Tempest for the UK.

France also seeks co-operation with the UK on Directed Energy Weapons, which damage targets with highly focused energy and without a solid projectile, such as lasers, microwaves and particle beams.

Since Brexit, British participation in EU defence programmes is decided on a case-by-case basis. This does not hinder bilateral Franco-British projects. “The red line for Paris remains that EU taxpayers’ money cannot go to British companies,” wrote Billon-Galland and Tenenbaum.

Some defence projects have fallen through. France spent €280 million in 2006-2008 on a failed attempt to develop a joint aircraft carrier with Britain. Billon-Galland and Tenenbaum suggest that “joint procurement and capability development projects may not be the most immediate area for joint Franco-British co-operation going forward. Joint deployments, training and operations could in fact prove a better demonstration of a common strategic culture and joint leadership.”