The last time France and the UK signed a treaty of shared defence was in 1947 in the aftermath of the second World War. Back then it was all about a fear that Germany would rebuild their forces and begin the long march to the English Channel again.
These days it’s for far less threatening reasons. With world power shifting toward the Pacific Rim, both Britain and France are struggling to keep up their status as powerful nations. For years, the cliché of punching above their weight has been levelled at both nations and now they’re taking that seriously.
So the two nations are now making an opportunity out of the monetary problems facing them to sign this latest in a very long line of treaties. This time it is made up of a series of linked agreements to organise joint training exercises, shared deployment of troops, and the collaborative use of equipment and technology.
Interestingly, it wasn’t just this mutual defense treaty that Cameron and Sarkozy announced. The countries will now also be cooperating over the development of nuclear warheads, sharing the costs of research and testing and any data that this produces. George Smiley and his colleagues would not appreciate this, I feel. And I doubt his modern-day equivalents are altogether comfortable with it.
Both premiers have been out today telling anyone who would listen that these agreements won’t have any effect on the sovereign military independence and capabilities of each nation, despite the shared deployments and equipment.
Behind all the speeches and press releases mentioning common threats and shared aims, these agreements seem much more to be about maintaining a global presence in the 21st-century. Both leaders are well aware of the truth Mao spoke when he declared that
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
The very fact that the UK and France have agreed to share Nuclear secrets – those most closely guarded of all things – demonstrates that they realise neither can afford to maintain their military forces, and therefore international power alone.
It shouldn’t surprise anybody that this agreement came hot on the tail of the Treasury’s slapdash attempt at a defence review. The fiscal priority of that review, rather than any military strategy, left Team Cameron trying to claim there would be no frontline loss of military capability while imagery of aircraft-less aircraft carriers and hugely reduced troop numbers played in everyone’s minds.
In agreeing to this, Cameron has opened himself up to further attacks from the Eurosceptic right-wing of his own party, as well as those elements of the media who will not appreciate Britannia’s need to have the old enemy’s help to defend her shores.
The treaty makes sense in purely fiscal and logical terms. But politically, it’s fraught with difficulties. The UK and France have had a tempestuous relationship, pretty much ever since William the Bastard became William the Conqueror in 1066. It’s unlikely to escalate to that level again, but I’ve no doubt we won’t have to look too far into the future to see differences of opinion and rivalries emerge. These treaties may last only up to the point where Britain sees the need to intervene in some Franco-African nation like the Congo. What would happen then?