By Pierre Tran
Paris – France seeks to maintain close ties with Britain after Brexit on a bilateral and multilateral basis, with the Macron administration proposing a European council for security and defense as an institutional link, a government official said.
The Dec. 12th election resulted in the UK seeing the Conservative party returned with a comfortable 80-seat parliamentary majority, allowing prime minister Boris Johnson formally to take the UK out of the European Union at the end of January.
“A page will turn,” the French official told Dec. 17 the Anglo-American Press Association.
France sees the UK as a valuable partner and is promoting creation of a European security and defense council, which would work with the European Council, a high-level EU political institution.
“The European defense and security council is not necessarily an instrument solely of the 27 (EU members),” the official said. The council would serve as a “means of structured exchange between the European partners and the United Kingdom.”
“We need to reach agreement on the council’s mission,” the official said.
The idea of such a council has been accepted and there are talks on procedure.
There are already European institutions covering foreign affairs, defense and security but no such high-level political institution dedicated to defense.
The European Council is the political forum for heads of state and heads of government of the EU, which Britain will leave on Jan. 31. The European Council sets the political agenda, while the European Commission acts as the executive arm.
France and Germany have floated the idea of a security and defense council, which has been considered by think tanks, a European source in Brussels said. There is not a formal proposal and it remains to be seen how such an organization would fit into the institutional landscape.
French president Emmanuel Macron stirred heated debate by evoking the “brain death” of Nato, in an Nov. 7 interview with British weekly, The Economist, with that critical state stemming from a lack of reliable support from the US.
US president Donald Trump said Macron’s comment was “very, very nasty,” when a few weeks later the political leaders gathered for the Nato summit, held at Grove hotel on a golf course at Watford, north of London. That meeting marked the 70th anniversary of the Atlantic alliance.
How the council would be set up raises questions as the UK will have left the EU if and when the institution were set up.
If Britain were on the council, which other nations would have a place at the table, said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of think tank Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégique.
One way round the structural problem raised by Brexit might be an informal group, he said.There are informal groups such Britain, France and Germany speaking as a three-strong European group on Iran.
“Perhaps it will be an informal solution, but an institutional one,” he said.
“It’s a great idea in principle,” said Nick Witney, senior research fellow at European Council for Foreign Relations, a think tank.
Such a council might yield a strategic overview seen as needed in Europe.
“The need to re-engage in serious, collective strategic thinking, as opposed to waiting to be told what to do by the Americans, may be the single most important step towards a Europe that is significantly more capable of defending itself, ” Witney said in a June 25 ECFR report.
“Such a Europe is more likely to survive the twenty-first century as a protagonist rather than prey. ”
The ECFR report was titled Building Europeans’ Capacity to Build Themselves.
Macron in a March 4 speech called for a “European security council with the United Kingdom on board to prepare our collective decisions ”
In that discourse, titled For European Renewal, Macron sought a Europe backed by a defense and security treaty “to define our fundamental obligations in association with NATO and our European allies.”
Macron also called for more defense spending.
On the bilateral front, there will be celebration in November of the 10th anniversary of the Lancaster House treaty, the French official said.
A French senate report on arms procurement on Nov. 27 called for France to put fresh energy in the Lancaster House accord.
That Anglo-French treaty is a bilateral agreement for operational and industrial cooperation, including research in nuclear weapons, a joint combined expeditionary force, and sharing technology for a combat UAV.
There are also plans to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the call by the late French president, Charles de Gaulle, for France to fight back against the Nazis. The BBC broadcast that call to arms from London on June 18 1940.
On the operational front, the British help in a “very significant way ”, in the sub-Saharan Sahel region, flying Chinook heavy transport helicopters supporting French forces. Those Chinooks are “of high value,” the official said.
There is much scope for industrial cooperation, the official said.
“We are confident we can deepen the cooperation in defense and security. ”
Asked on whether Britain could join the Franco-German project for a Future Combat Air System, the official said, “It’s clearly a Franco-German project, with a “prime partner ” and “junior partner ” in each significant part of the aircraft.
These partners have French, German, and French-German-British links, the official said, adding that there was no knowledge of a British request for direct partnership on FCAS.
On the industrial front, “obviously MBDA is an Anglo-French success,” the official said.
MBDA is a missile maker, with joint ownership in Britain, France and Germany.
There is also close French cooperation with Germany, with two flagship industrial projects, namely a New Generation Fighter in FCAS and a new tank in the Main Ground Combat System, and an agreement for arms exports.
“We are working, and Germany works with us,” the official said.
The new tank is a key element in a planned MGCS, designed as a system of systems composed of several land vehicles, both manned and unmanned.
The French vehicles will work in the Army’s Scorpion modernization program, while the German vehicles will plug into the equivalent national system.
On the institutional front, the European Commission is gearing up for a stronger presence in defense, with the appointment of Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for internal markets, and creation of a directorate general for defense.
Breton is former CEO of Atos, a French technology company, and former finance minister.
The EU is setting up the European Defense Fund with a 2021-2027 budget of €13 billion to co-fund research projects with industry. That fund is part of a bid to boost European strategic autonomy and sovereignty.
Macron pursues a strong Europe, which includes European defense. In the pursuit of the latter, the projects for FCAS and the MGCS tank system were launched. There is also a planned medium-altitude long-endurance UAV.
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