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Global France meets Global Britain?

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Written by John Keiger

The anniversary of the Entente Cordiale is being celebrated with the usual military pomp. The past is useful, but more interesting today is to look to what the future relationship, cordial or otherwise, might be when there are new governments in both London and Paris.

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The 120th anniversary of the signing of the Entente Cordiale on 8 April 1904 is rightly a time for glorying in the high moments of past Franco-British relations. But this anniversary comes towards the end of a period when the climate between Paris and London has been very frosty in the wake of Brexit and AUKUS. It is perhaps more rewarding to look at where those relations might go from here.

Riding high in the polls with a 20 point lead the Labour Party is preparing for government. Across the Channel with a 10-15 point poll lead in the June Euro elections and predicted victory in the 2027 presidentials, the Rassemblement National is making tentative preparations for government. Two years after forming his cabinet, Sir Keir Starmer’s cross-Channel interlocutor will be either Marine Le Pen or – should her ineligibility be declared in the forthcoming October trial for alleged misuse of European parliamentary assistants – the RN’s star president, the youthful Jordan Bardella.

Labour’s election manifesto is yet to be revealed, although something of its international positioning is gradually emerging from Starmer on Brexit and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy on foreign and defence matters. The RN’s programme for the European elections is only just being revealed in drip form. But there is much that France and Britain could work on bilaterally, even if ideologically Starmer and Le Pen are unlikely bed-fellows. Defence looms large.

The relationship has at its core the Franco-British bilateral Lancaster House agreements signed in 2010 by then prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Subsequent British and French defence reviews and programmes reference these agreements. The joint commitment is to close cooperation on a wide range of defence partnerships, including weapons production, nuclear collaboration and joint combined task forces. Piqued as he was by Brexit, then by AUKUS, Macron has paid scant attention to relations with London, other than souring them.

Le Pen’s RN wishes to recalibrate French foreign and defence policy away from its present focus on the EU towards greater national sovereignty, independence and world reach – a sort of Global France. The RN’s website on defence has several policies that chime with neither Labour nor Conservative governments: withdrawal from NATO’s integrated command (again—as under de Gaulle), and ‘dialogue with Russia on major shared issues’. It also plans to cease structural cooperation with Germany on large joint projects, such as the next generation tank and fighter jet. But on Britain specifically, the RN calls for a ‘new phase of dialogue on the entente cordiale with the British’ in areas such as nuclear and defence operations.

It should not be forgotten that the RN, or Front National as it was until 2018, supported Brexit. At his first European election campaign rally on 3 March Jordan Bardella returned to this issue in setting out his party’s line on reforming the EU. While the party has moved away from its desire for Frexit, Le Monde labels it as wanting ‘a hidden Frexit’, via an à la carte Europe based on ‘a European alliance of free and sovereign nations’ to be achieved if necessary by a re-working of EU treaties. Moreover, the RN’s EU would be a de-fanged one, in which the Commission’s prerogative for initiating laws would be removed, reducing it to a mere secretariat. For Bardella, who praised Brexit, the new model for the EU would be so un-constraining that even the British could reintegrate it.  On defence and diplomacy specifically, he stated that no further cooperation with the EU will be countenanced.

So how should Labour approach relations with a Le Pen/Bardella regime? There are clearly things they should avoid. First David Lammy, who is given to intemperate language, should avoid insulting the future French government as he did on Twitter with Donald Trump. Second, Starmer and Lammy should avoid jumping at the opportunity of signing a mooted foreign and security agreement with the EU. While professing not to reverse Brexit, one can easily imagine a naïve Labour foreign affairs team hastily succumbing to the siren sounds of improved trade relations with the EU in the form of fewer phytosanitary inspections or allowing musicians to tour the continent in exchange for a major defence and security pact with the EU.

This would be foolish on several grounds. After June the new EU parliament and new commission will be very different to now. A more national sovereignty focus could see radical EU reforms undertaken that would need to settle before Britain should even contemplate signing a security pact, if ever, especially if it involved engaging in an EU common weapons procurement scheme. Serious thought should be given to how an EU deal would impact recently sealed agreements with major allies like the USA and Australia (AUKUS), or construction of the next generation fighter aircraft with Japan and Italy (Tempest), or indeed Britain’s general tilt to the Indo-Pacific.

This is where a revitalised Entente Cordiale could come into play. It would need to be post-Macron to establish a clean sheet on which to sketch longer term Franco-British relations. There are clearly shared long term interests that Global Britain and a new Global France could work towards, notably in the Indo-Pacific. The 2010 Lancaster House agreement, like the Entente Cordiale itself, is a light and flexible structure that could serve Britain far better than hitching itself to a tired and cumbersome EU.

 

An earlier version of this article was published by Spectator Coffee House.

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About the author

John Keiger