Still Cordiale? Revisiting the Entente Cordiale in the Context of European Security and Brexit

By Paul Hagan
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2016, Vol. 2015/2016 No. 3 | pg. 1/1

When Britain and France signed what became known as the ‘Entente Cordiale' in 1904, it brought into being an era of mutual cooperation between two neighbours whose past had often made them the best of enemies. The partnership served and survived two World Wars, but when I examined it in its centenary year for this publication back in 2004, relations had frayed. The fog on the channel had been broughtabout by disagreements over the Iraq war and French designs on building a counterweight to the US. However it would seem that in the years since the US-led invasion of Iraq, it would seem that the French have missed few opportunities to intervene in Middle East and beyond, undaunted by recent attacks in Paris. In contrast the UK hasn't been at the forefront of projecting its power, but when it did it was to support France. The Lancaster House treaties of 2010 seem to have formed a more concrete framework that seems to be holding, for now at least. What have been the factors to drive this and what challenges does it face?

Both countries saw a dramatic curtailment of their global influence in last century when superpower conflicts largely reduced their roles to bit-part players. As far as much of the popular history of this ancient relationship is concerned the interesting parts often end in 1956, when the failure of the Suez expedition marked a severance of imperial reach for both. Britain was often seen as playing second fiddle to the US, while France's aim became to seek to build Europe as a counterweight and springboard for its grandeur. It has been the relationship with the United States which often set them apart, as was evident in 2003, when differing approaches to the Iraq conflict put them at loggerheads. Accusations of cowboys, poodles and more famously ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys'1 abounded. Since the departure from office of Bush, Chirac and Blair differences between the various countries have seemed less pronounced and the relationship between Britain and France has grown closer in particular in security terms.

In the last ten years Anglo-French relations have moved from the cordial to the concrete. Eighteen after years since the two signed the agreement at Saint Malo, to work to create within the Europe "the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces"2 the Lancaster House Treaties were signed by President Hollande and Prime Minister Cameron in November 2010. The scope of the treaties is vast covering military training, interoperability of equipment, nuclear stockpile stewardship and cooperation in other fields. They also include the ability to deploy a UK-French integrated carrier strike group (when the Royal Navy once again has carriers) incorporating assets owned by both countries. The treaties were an undoubted sign that both countries were willing to commit to working together.

The UK's most recent Strategic Defence and Security Review mentions France more times than any other ally apart from the US.3 Meanwhile France's most recent defence White Paper in 2013, and similarly refers to the UK more times than Germany and more than anyone except the US, commenting on "the high level of mutual trust that has been established with our British allies."4 One of the consequences of the these treaties was realised last month when 5,000 British and French troops took part in Exercise Griffin Strike5, the first such demonstration of the Anglo-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) envisaged in the treaties. This exercise follows-on from very real cooperation the two countries have used in the Libyan conflict, where Britain and France found themselves, uniquely, in the lead in an operation where the US pulled out of the combat at an early stage,6 as well as more recently in Iraq and now in Syria in operations against the group known as Daesh (or Islamic State).

In terms of French policy there has been no let-up in Paris' desire to use force to protect its interest and assert itself militarily in areas of influence, to quote it's 2013 White Paper on defence, it continues to see itself as a "A European Power with global reach" suggesting a continuance of its own desire to walk tall in the world. This has been true for governments on both right (Sarkozy) and left (Hollande). Having rejoined NATO's integrated command structure France's recent record for foreign military interventions has matched anything the UK has done in recent decades, intervening notably Libya in 2011, Mali in 2013, the Central African Republic in 2014, Iraq in 2014, and as of 2015 in the conflict in Syria. Although some of these were limited in time and scope, Operation Barkhane, a long-term counter-insurgency operation has committed 3,000 French troops to a lasting counter-insurgency operation across five African states since 2014.7 The opening of a new military base in the United Arab Emirates in 2009 allows for further force projection even beyond the traditional areas of North Africa and the Levant, giving its fleet better access to the Strait of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean, where along with the Royal Navy have been taking EU-sponsored action around the horn of Africa.

In contrast British foreign policy has become somewhat less ambitious in recent years, although allegations that the UK has ‘effectively resigned as a world power'8 seem a little far-fetched. Whereas the UK was perceived by many in France and elsewhere in Europe as inherently bellicose during the years of Tony Blair's premiership, recent decades seem to have brought a lessening of the desire to intervene abroad. While it is difficult to out into exact terms any such change shrinking defence budgets do paint a picture of contraction. The British army is due to shrink to 80,000 and last year the UK is still the forthcoming 8-9% decrease in the UK military defence budget as compared to 2009 figures has led to, what one study called a 20-30% reduction in conventional capability.9 However it does remain the fifth biggest military spender in the world, the second biggest spender in NATO after the US.

Foreign policy has rarely been centre-stage at any point during the premiership of either David Cameron or Gordon Brown and it was not a major issue during the two most recent British elections, suggesting a lack of appetite in public discourse about being seen as a power of world significance. The failure by Prime Minister Cameron to convince the House of Commons to sanction action on Syria in 2011 to some looked like a retreat from global responsibilities. Coincidently the next day in Parliament there was a debate on why the Royal Navy had no aircraft carriers (Although two of greater size than previously used, are currently in construction).

British military intervention however did not end with the 2003 effort to remove Saddam Hussein. As mentioned the UK was one of the key advocates of the Libyan intervention in 2011, and provided considerable forces to the seven month operation. The Royal Air Force has been involved in operations against Daesh in Iraq since September 2014 and in Syria since December 2015. Where France has lead the UK always supported and occasionally followed, they provided aircraft and around 40 troops10 for French intervention in Mali, offered support for French planes involved in operations in Iraq and Syria, which they have fully joined. For David Cameron gaining democratic support for Extending operations to Syria was partly made possible due to pressure to act after the attacks on Paris by the Daesh group and a direct appeal from Francois Hollande, leaving one to conclude, perhaps ironically that Britain had returned to war, thanks to France.

Having seemingly been able to demonstrate close cooperation in areas the Middle-East, the lack of agreement over the EU makes the alliance seem curious. However while Britain and France remain the main actors in any European defence configuration none of the recent progress in the security relationship is down to the EU. The lack of progress in the EU's Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is another likely reason often cited for increased cooperation between the two states, this now coupled with a multiplication of near threats and continuing delays in CSDP seems to have served as a catalyst for cooperation. French government's continuing desire to embed its own security within a European Union framework over the last decade remains an objective so far largely unfulfilled. During its presidency of the European Union in 2008 one of France's stated objectives was a deepening of the security and defence aspects of the European Union,11 something the British remain distinctly less enthusiastic on. The Lancaster House treaty is a bilateral one between the UK and France and does not have a formal link with the CSDP. It does not use the separate Lisbon Treaty's Permanent Structured Cooperation facility, nor involve the European Defence Agency. They have therefore been seen as a break on building the kind of EU-based defence projects that France had hoped for. Some French commentators have suggested that Lancaster House and its increased cooperation between the UK and Franc represented the triumph of necessity borneof the inability to use Germany as a strategic partner in a military alliance given their continuing unwillingness to commit troops to military action.12 In this sense it's a triumph more for the British approach to security.

What has often seen as a key reason for the renewed cooperation between the two is the desire to maintain a global presence, but the lessening of resources to do so, this has led to some to wryly dub the alliance as an "entente frugale"13 The question then arises of whether or not it could survive further pressure from further defence cuts could then arise. The shrinking involvement of the US in European security issues has been a factor. US President Obama's, famed ‘pivot towards Asia' has opened European eyes to the need to lessen their reliance upon Washington. A resurgent Russia and enduring conflicts on their doorstep have never been far from Paris or London's attention in recent years. Meanwhile France's symbolic ally Germany has been handed increasing power by the European Union, though remains less than willing to match diplomatic or economic power with force.

For certain the result of the EU referendum on 23 June is likely to have longstanding consequences for the future of both countries, the UK in particular, and is likely to see fractious negotiations relating to agriculture, the single market, research and a number of other problematic issues as far as France is concerned. Whether or not this will affect the now close security relationship developing between the two remains to be seen. There have been robust denials of this from some quarters with the head of the Franco-British Council quotes as saying "This is a day-to-day, intense partnership that has never been affected by whatever French or British-bashing was going on in either country in the last five years"14 Some French commentators have suggested that if Britain were to leave the EU then French attempts to embed security and defence within the EU structure would face less and less resistance, which could give the French military a more European character,15 however one potential consequence could be that if Scotland were to secede from the UK as a result it would weaken all British conventional forces, including casting fresh doubt on any British nuclear deterrent. The other worry is that if the UK suffers economically as a result of leaving the EU the pressure its defence budget could be under could make France less willing to embed itself further.

In security terms a British withdrawal from the EU, ought not to affect British security policy too strongly but it has set-off alarm bells in Eastern European capitals as any weakening of the EU could be detrimental to their security which they see as a bulwark against an ever-aggressive Moscow. Poland and the Baltic states are worried about Brexit, pursued by a bear!16 There have been reports in Brussels in the week of writing that UK diplomats have been citing their commitment to NATO as an example of how they remain a trusted partner in Europe, certainly July's summit could be one of the most significant in the Alliance's recent history if the UK were to use it to remind its partners of their commitment. In these eras of constrained budgets and American indifference and simmering tensions on the European periphery Britain and France have found much more to cooperate-on than not. The threat and use of Russian power on Europe (and NATO's) eastern flank as well as continuing areas of instability around the Mediterranean have meant that security issues cannot be ignored.

The result of the EU vote on 23 June might yet have significant consequences for the roughly 350,000 French people live in the UK, not to mention the approximately 400,000 Britons living in France, but the substance of that remains unknown. London is likely to remain in effect France's sixth biggest city17 and the French in London will likely to continue being represented by an MP in the National Assembly.

Shortly after the terror attacks on Paris on the night of 13 November England and France's football teams played-out a match inconsequential in its result but rich in symbolism. The lyrics to La Marseillaise were plastered across big screens of London's Wembley stadium and English fans held-up a giant French flag while the second-in-line to the throne led English fans in a stirring rendition of the French anthem. As an event of cross-channel solidarity it is perhaps more memorable than anything as a result of the Common Market, Eurovision or the Channel Tunnel. Today, as in 1904, both see threats than the old foe across the channel. Vive l'entente, for now at least!


  1. A phrase originally used by a supposedly Scottish character in American comedy The Simpsons, it became a popular refrain in British and publications keen to suggest the French were weak or cowardly.
  2. Joint Declaration on European Defence Joint Declaration issued at the British-French Summit (Saint-Malo, 4 December 1998) Article 2.
  3. 22 times, as opposed to 39 for the US (Ibid)
  4. Page 22 file:///C:/Users/Paul/Downloads/White_paper_on_defense_2013.pdf
  5. Information widely carried by Ministries of defence &
  6. Accidental Heroes: Britain, France and the Libya Operation RUSI Interim Libya Campaign Report, 22 September 2011
  8. Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post, 21 May 2015
  9. Ben Barry: Prospects for the United Kingdom's armed forces in 2015 and beyond, The Military Balance, IISS, 3 March 2015
  11. Speech by Sarkozy to the European Parliament, 16 December 2008.
  12. Claudia Mayor, quoted in Le Figaro, 16 February 2012.
  13. Philippe Leymarie, 4 novembre 2010, François Heisbourg, The Economist, 20 November 2014, Nick Robinson, BBC, 2 November 2010
  14. Quoted in Politico, 5 July 2016
  15. Heisbourg Ibid
  16. Paul Hagan, Slugger O'Toole, February 2016,
  17. Lucy Ash, BBC website, 30 May 2012

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