Where does France stand?

Le HuffingtonPost.fr, November 27, 2014, Strade, November 27, 2014

Maintaining its prestige seems like quite an old-fashioned concept, reminiscent of the ancien régime. Nevertheless, for today’s French leaders, this concept defines France’s role and global position. But what prestige? That of France’s former status as a major power with a return to rear alliances, as some seem to advocate? Such an attitude would be suicidal, as it would lead to a dismantling of the structure that has been patiently built in Europe since the 1950s. Therefore, understanding the status of France nowadays requires a dramatically new approach challenging the idea of Europe as serving France’s interests primarily and seeing France more as a key player within Europe.

The challenge to European order represented by Russian attacks, the return to this continent of wars of conquest and annexations by force, the obvious agenda of a foreign power to try to make the EU implode, the shift in focus of US foreign policy towards Asia and the weakening of NATO all highlight the necessity to reach an unprecedented level of participation, commitment and responsibility in the European project. This, of course, concerns all EU member States – and all EU citizens – but particularly France because of its persistent ability to “understand grand strategy and the exercise of power in all its dimensions”. 1

As it happens, the country which has always sought to be the most strategically independent 2 on the European continent is now unable to hold its position. The reasons are not to be found in the current economic circumstances. They are much deeper, structural, or even simply mathematical. As shown by technological setbacks in such vital areas as, for example, fighter planes, naval units, drones or cyber-warfare, a country of 65 million inhabitants cannot keep up, however cunning and motivated it may be.

Just like Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet, who, one day in May 1950, turned the destiny of Europe around, thereby putting France – still bearing the scars of 1940 – back at the centre of the continent’s history 3, I believe that Paris should take a bold initiative (once coal and steel, now a common army and a strong show of support for Ukraine joining the EU) in order to revive the European project and overcome its own major identity crisis.

First step: Britain and the continent – a New Deal

The unwillingness to tackle the British issue or, more precisely, the existence of two different projects, as Jean-Louis Bourlanges put it (a “strong, organised and united European Union” on the one hand, and a Union for “circulation and exchanges” 4 on the other hand) will only increase Europhobic sentiment in Britain, participate in the disintegration of – and citizens’ loss of interest in – the European project and, ultimately, contribute to the weakening or even the dismantling of the EU. Repeating insistently that there will be no revision of treaties is pushing David Cameron further towards the trap set for him by those who wish to return to some sort of glorious imperial past, but it also represents a perpetuation of a game of makeshift alliances to the detriment of securing a more durable political choice. Besides, urging the British to leave the EU, as Michel Rocard once did, would just be using Britain as a scapegoat accountable for the weaknesses of other member-States and would mean relinquishing, in the short and mid term, the capital gain of Britain’s contribution.

Safeguarding the future

France could tackle the issue head-on and suggest that other member-States seal a proper deal with the UK and divide the treaty into two parts. The first part would sum up all provisions pertaining to the common market – the Europe of the four freedoms of movement, including – whether the British like it or not – the free movement of people. The UK (and other States seeking to reduce their participation in the European project) would withdraw from all common policies (agricultural, structural contributions, foreign affairs, justice, etc.) while maintaining the right to participate in all discussions on policies carried out by the larger European Community of States that are willing to continue with European construction, but without the right to vote. In exchange, the UK would accept amendments to treaties allowing for the widespread use of qualified majority voting, the transformation of the Council of Ministers into a real European Senate, the cancellation of revolving presidencies and the election of the President of the Commission by universal suffrage, as well as remaining a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights.

A common European army

In view of recent strategic upheavals, the issue of European self-defence has become especially meaningful. Surprisingly, very few people have called for a strong European initiative. All we have heard is a few scattered calls for a reinforcement of member-States’ contributions to NATO. The Atlantic organisation remains the sole reference and the ultimate horizon. If, as I believe, the presence of two or three divisions at the Eastern borders of the EU would quite certainly have prevented the current disaster, NATO’s inability to employ sufficient political and military methods of dissuasion to stop the invasion of Crimea and part of the Donets Basin must be questioned.

A smaller, more united European Union must take the plunge by developing an autonomous defence policy and starting to work on the creation, not of a unique army, but of a common army strong enough to become a real centre of gravity of European defence and security policy. As France is the country with the best military equipment and, more importantly, experience of political commitment, it could take the lead in this initiative.

The political conditions of success are obvious: a “simple” shift from inter-governmental to community level and the boldness to entrust the traditional institutional triangle – the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council (i.e. the States) – with the responsibility for this common army, along with a transitory provision that any deployment decision must be approved by a High Security Council 5 comprising the heads of State and government of countries participating in Permanent Structured Cooperation in terms of defence.

As far as the arms industry is concerned, the diagnosis is obvious and irrevocable. Without the emergence of great trans-European players, the EU faces new economic fiascos such as the one with two competing 4th-generation fighter planes (Eurofighter and Rafale) in the 1970s-80s, a fiasco not caused, as some would have us believe, by military disagreement but, on a much deeper level, by the antagonism between industrial and military lobbies eager to safeguard their profits. As a result, in addition to the issue of extra costs, European countries (and their specialised companies) have not been involved in the 5th-generation fighter plane and are showing no interest for a 6th-generation project. The conclusion is clear: some companies represent major hurdles to the construction of a European defence policy and, consequently, are real threats to European security. A new approach is needed: creating trans- European companies while taking into account investments made by member-States in the past 70 years as well as the willingness of other member-States to get more involved in the future.

In the field of military aviation, France holds the key to such an initiative. The French government has the political and legal means to create, based on the military activities of the Dassault Group with 45% of shares owned by Airbus (i.e. Germany, France and Spain), a large European group – a new branch of Airbus whose capital would be open to other major European States (or companies based in such States 6) willing to participate (especially Poland, Italy and Ukraine).

In the field of military shipbuilding, the creation of a common European army comprised chiefly of three or four naval aviation units, 7 could put an end to the inertia that we are currently witnessing regarding integration. Participation in calls for bids to supply the common European army could be opportunely open exclusively to substantially multinational companies in order to encourage major European shipyards 8 to bring their military activities together into two or three common 9 competing branches. Otherwise, the EU would only confirm its slow strategic decline 10 in this field and would risk, in the mid term, losing the know-how that can still be found in a few of its member-States.

The Ukrainian priority

Apart from sanctions (which are certainly necessary as they demonstrate at least some sort of unity in Europe and in the West as a whole), what the Russian regime now fears above all is seeing its popularity plummet following massive human loss during a new offensive in Ukraine. In the absence of European and Atlantic military means guaranteeing efficient dissuasion, Ukrainians must face alone a regime that has decided to ignore international rules governing coexistence between the States. Leaving them on their own faced with an attacker who deploys formidable military means in terms of arms and troops and who, from a political point of view, resorts to the old cynical methods of destabilization, infiltration, blackmail and disinformation would be suicidal for the EU.

In addition to supplying necessary defensive (and dissuasive) weapons, the European Union must send a strong political signal by ceasing to consider Ukraine’s accession to the EU as the outcome of a long process to be concluded in the distant future. Ukraine is an exception – it is under attack. Europe’s response should accordingly be an exception. Contrary to all other countries running for accession, without changing the current criteria, the process of Ukraine’s accession must start immediately, along with the country’s whole process of reformation and modernisation, in order to establish the climate of trust necessary in order for European companies to make major investments.

In the face of the geopolitical earthquake that is happening in Europe, the idea that France should first tidy up its own back garden is pointless. Europe badly needs France and its potential influence in order to measure up to its own challenges. And the only way France can overcome its identity crisis and its submission to those advocating a long-gone reality is by taking the reins over Europe more firmly and creating a European super-power but one that is reasonable, capable of keeping its word and taking action.

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  1. “The Case for Berlin: Bringing Germany Back to the West”, Jeffrey Gedmin, World Affairs, November/December 2014
  2. Relatively, as France has always been a member of NATO.
  3. Jean-Louis Bourlanges, “Identité européenne et ambition française”, Comment, issue n°147/Autumn 2014
  4. Jean-Louis Bourlanges, op. cit.
  5. As formulated by diplomat Pierre de Boissieu.
  6. Including mainly Alenia-Aermacchi (Italy), Antonov (Ukraine), Saab (Sweden).
  7. Including to the two Mistrals which will not be delivered to Russia.
  8. DCNS (France), Fincantieri (Italy), TKMS (Germany), Navantia (Spain), Donbass ISD Polska (Poland, Ukraine), Damen (Netherands), Odense (Denmark)…
  9. Gathering companies from at least three or four different member-States.
  10. One naval unit alone has zero strategic value, especially if it comprises a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier requiring maintenance 6 months a year.

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