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Resetting the Entente Cordiale

ARTICLES - 24 November 2021

Is it time to reset the Entente Cordiale? London certainly seems to think so.

According to The Sunday Times, the UK government is drawing up plans for a new strategic alliance with France that would go beyond existing defense and security ties. It would include further areas for cooperation, like nuclear testing, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the ability to land planes on each other’s aircraft carriers. But does France think the UK is being serious?

AUKUS, the elephant in the room

Timing matters. Paris is still waiting for London to explain why it joined AUKUS and what role it intends to play. The US was quick to send politicians and senior officials to Paris to repair the fallout. President Biden also apologized for the clumsiness, yet the UK has said little. France’s frustration deepened after the British Prime minister jokingly added "donnez-moi un break". It’s not that France is expecting a British apology over AUKUS - it isn’t - but any bilateral reseat will require an explanation.

Political issues around Brexit will also need to be resolved, especially the Northern Ireland Protocol and fisheries.

Time is of the essence

However, the two countries cannot afford to wait until after the French election in April to hold talks.

The absence of strong bilateral cooperation is hurting both countries. Whether it’s Africa, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific or European security, France and the UK share much of the same worldview. Failing to work together not only hurts their interests, but it also affects their credibility in the eyes of other partners, like the United States, which expects France and the UK to work together in their neighbourhood and further afield. Complex geopolitical problems cannot afford strategic patience.

Second, AUKUS has shown France that it is more strategically alone in the world than it thought. For the UK, AUKUS was a significant win for Global Britain but it is hardly a sufficient basis to convince countries of the UK’s proclaimed new role in the world, especially if London cannot work with traditional allies like France. Investing more in NATO is positive but attempting to play NATO against the EU will do little to re-establish post-Brexit Britain’s European credentials.

Finally, the longer the UK and France wait to hold talks, the more the gap will widen. Starting talks soon would be wise given the chance that both a Johnson government and a Macron presidency will still be in place in the next five years.

Choosing the right type of agreement

The Sunday Times article suggests that the UK government is hoping for a grand treaty that would be as ambitious as the 1998 Saint-Malo Declaration (which paved the way for a European security and defense policy) or the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties (which strengthened bilateral cooperation in security, defense, nuclear and defense industry and armament). 

No bilateral reset can work without a fundamental shift in tone and approach. 

Rather than an over-ambitious treaty however, it might be preferable to opt for a series of bilateral agreements in areas of mutual interest - for example, cooperating in space, building new nuclear reactors to produce green energy and developing joint technologies to protect critical infrastructure, like undersea cables. Regionally, more cooperation in the Sahel and the Middle East seems obvious. The exact form of the agreement will be a matter for discussion. It will also require both sides to chip in ideas - not just the UK.

Tackling misperceptions

But no bilateral reset can work without a fundamental shift in tone and approach. The problem today is that both France and the UK see what the other is doing through their own prism. Neither thinks the other side is serious about strengthening cooperation. They misunderstand each other and see missteps as intentional jibes. This is further damaging trust.

First, the UK misunderstands France’s stance on Brexit. Macron does not want the UK or Brexit to fail. He was one of the only EU leaders to write a letter to the British people after the UK’s departure from the EU saying that the UK, France and the EU should continue cooperating closely. He also knows that a weaker UK would not be in France or Europe’s interest. 

Nor is it about revenge. Instead, it is about recognizing that things have changed as a result of Brexit. If Brexit means Brexit, then the UK cannot have better or equal access to the EU’s single market than it did when it was a member state. That’s what French Prime Minister Jean Castex meant when he said the UK must realize there are more downsides to leaving the EU (the French word ‘dommage’ meaning downsides, not damage). France is also insisting that the UK meets the obligations it has signed up to. It is open to talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but not to what it sees as the UK’s attempt to unwind the deal.

Second, Paris does not fully trust the Johnson government. The few times Macron did speak to Johnson, his comments were immediately leaked to the British press and in Paris’ eyes, often spun or taken out of context. Continued French bashing is seen as London’s attempt to blame others for problems it has largely created. This mistrust is not helped by the fact that the French - with some exceptions - tend to talk very little about the UK and Brexit. When France does talk about the British government, it’s often in a negative way.

Failing to work together not only hurts their interests, but it also affects their credibility in the eyes of other partners, like the United States.

But France’s actions have also angered London. It blames France for the UK’s exclusion from the EU’s Galileo satellite project. Some in London believe that France has used ongoing Brexit problems to overshadow the UK’s G7 and COP26 summits this year. The UK also feels that France has done little to include it in the discussions it has with countries in the Indo-Pacific like Australia and India.

The British government was also angry when France decided to close its borders to lorries travelling to France in the run up to Christmas 2019 because of rising cases of Covid-19 in the UK. President Macron’s questioning of the reliability of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, which at the time was the most widely administered Covid-19 vaccine in the UK, was seen as a direct criticism of the UK’s response to the pandemic. 

Sidelining the EU will be counterproductive

Then there is the EU. While France does want a closer partnership with the UK, Paris is adamant that it should never come at the expense of the EU and France’s role within it. The UK’s confrontational tone toward the EU has made it harder for President Macron to engage more with the UK - especially given the EU is such a central pillar of his domestic and foreign policy agendas. So long as France continues to be a member of the EU, issues like China, industrial cooperation and defense procurement, will necessarily need to include the EU - whether the UK likes it or not.

Is a reset possible? Yes, but only if France and Britain think that the other is serious about it.

 

Copyright: Leon Neal / POOL / AFP

 

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