TAG VC Britain France and Germany, September 26th, 2023

By Julian Lindley-French

“It is a luxury for Britain, France and Germany not to get together”.

“Don’t hold your breath” was the message from this TAG Virtual Conference. There is little prospect of a Triumvirate leading European defence going forward because Europe’s three small ‘Great Powers” do not agree on what is important strategically. Britain, France, and Germany together represent over 60% of the €278 billion free Europe spent on defence in 2022 and almost 90% of defence materiel production and research and development. Despite the compelling strategic logic of close collaboration, they remain politically divided by post-COVID domestic issues, nuclear deterrence, Brexit, and the very purpose of stronger European defence – a back-up for the United States or a force able to defend European interests.

The assumption central to the debate was that given the growing domestic and foreign pressures on the United States Europeans would need to step up to do more for their own defence with Britain, France, and Germany to the fore.  Throughout the debate the assumption was challenged with a consensus that despite Europe’s rapidly deteriorating strategic environment and a major war in Ukraine the issues that continue to divide Britain, France and Germany are stronger than the need to work together. At times during the debate, it was as if the war in Ukraine had never happened.

France and Germany remain divided on big defence strategic matters, whilst Britain and France remain divided over post-Brexit political matters.  Britain has been focused on the Indo-Pacific even if London’s influence therein is minimal, France is still committed to some form of European strategic autonomy, whilst Germany remains fundamentally an opportunistic mercantilist power. Berlin, London, and Paris are also losing their respective strategic cultures in an increasingly bipolar US-China world.  What strategic focus that does exist concerns the here and now, such as Russian escalation with little evidence of much strategic thinking in any of the three capitals. If there is to be deeper collaboration it will be functionalist and focussed on delivering more capabilities. And yet, the divide is most evident in the purchase of defence materiel. Britain and Germany have invested in the F-35 along with almost all other Europeans whilst France has not. There are also two competing Future Combat Air Systems when ideally there should only be one. 

Any future European force worthy of the name is more likely to be driven by Britain and France and will be limited. The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) in conjunction with the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) are the most likely stepping-stones to strategic capability with the CJEF now a 10,000 strong fully operational force. One contested argument was that further politico-strategic alignment of the ‘Big Three’ is likely to be more by emphasis than plan with a natural focus for the British maritime air in the Eastern and Northern Atlantic, whilst land-centric Germany will look east, and France will tend to look across the Mediterranean.

The absence of ‘Big Three’ unity of strategic purpose was also affecting other Europeans, such as the Netherlands.  The Dutch have become noticeably less Atlanticist in the wake of Brexit with defence, which is always a soft issue for the body politic likely to be further downgraded. It is also forcing other European states such as Poland to try and fill a leadership vacuum.

The US may no longer be Europe’s pacifier, but the Americans remain Europe’s strategic arbiter. Britain, France, and Germany still seem to believe/hope that US leadership will absolve them of respective responsibilities their still relevant albeit inadequate power imposes upon them.  They are also in denial about the exponential increase in the costs all Europeans will have to bear to keep America fully engaged in European security and defence. 

Either way, greater European strategic responsibility will be needed and responsibilities cost. The only one big defence mechanism in Europe is NATO.  Or, more specifically, NATO’s European pillar. Britain, France, and Germany are going to have to stop simply talking NATO and start walking NATO because any such development will need to be expanded to include others, most notably Poland and Italy. This is because Europeans should not await another Trump administration to wake up and smell the American strategic and political coffee.  

Twas ever thus. What will it take?

Julian Lindley-French

Photo Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash