Britain and France, Ancient Enemies, to Share Defense

From Henry II to Napoleon, it's been a tense relationship

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The decision of France and Britain to start sharing defense resources and strategies would seem like a historic step. It's hard to find two countries with a richer history of enmity. Now, new treaties commit the French and British to nuclear cooperation, while Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron have also, according to the BBC, "confirmed plans for a joint expeditionary force." The U.K. will develop nuclear testing technology with France doing the actual testing. Another agreement involves sharing aircraft carriers.

So what's behind this move? Part of it is certainly an austerity effort in both countries--cooperating saves money. Some think, though, that this is also about the two former "Great Powers" recognizing the reality of the modern world, and coming to terms with decline. By joining together, they may have a better chance at maintaining their global presence.

  • This Is Not Entirely New  Ben MacItyre at The Australian points out that there's plenty of precedent in the twentieth century for cooperation. "In 1940, with Nazi forces pouring into France, Churchill, backed by the war cabinet, proposed that the two countries become one, combining armies, parliaments and currencies." Also, "French documents discovered two years ago reveal that, in 1956, French prime minister Guy Mollet proposed to Anthony Eden that France merge with Britain, with the Queen head of the amalgamated state." MacIntyre sees this as evidence that, despite cultural and historical clashes, "there exists parallel tradition of mutual admiration" and recognition of closeness. He adds that "Britain and France have not faced one another on the battlefield since 1815," and globalization has brought the countries closer: "London is, by population, the eighth-largest French city."
  • Saving Money, Strengthening NATO  British defense secretary Liam Fox writes in The Telegraph that this is a win-win agreement. No one's giving up sovereignty, but both countries will save money on defense by "exploit[ing] economies of scale." He argues that "there is no better time to deepen our relationship with France. Since President Sarkozy came into office we have seen a vigorous attempt to bring Europe and America closer together, and to bring France deeper into Nato."
  • Also About Recent Politics  David Blackburn counters in The Spectator that the NATO narrative is only part of the picture: "European nations are coming to terms with the strategic implications of the emerging east and an increasingly isolationist USA." He adds, too, that "this is not the first step to a common EU defence policy, but one could certainly be facilitated on the back of Cameron and Sarkozy's signatures."
  • Austerity and Decline  "The treaty has been born of shared fiscal adversity," writes Philip Stephens for the Financial Times. But it's also about a "pressing reality. Both nations want to retain global reach. Neither can afford any longer to go it alone." In addition, "only by working together can they preserve a defence industry able to keep up with the Americans." It helps that France is returning to NATO while the British-American relationship is "cooling." Here's the bottom line, according to Stephens:
France can no longer hope to organise Europe against America. Britain cannot substitute a close bond with the US for collaboration on its own continent. The pity is that it has taken the reality of decline to persuade them of the obvious.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.