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A European “Special Relationship”? The French View on Germany and NATO

The deliverables announced at the conclusion of the NATO Summit on July 9, combined with the positive outcome of the German White Paper on defense released just a few days later, look promising for French strategic interests writes Martin Michelot. While signs point toward more robust security in Europe and more EU-NATO cooperation, some fault lines that could hamper cooperation between the two institutions have been magnified.

France’s desire to see a balance in NATO’s response to the challenges it faces seems to have been echoed at the Warsaw Summit. France, as planned, did not significantly increase its participation in the Eastern Flank, due to concerns about operational overstretch. France is set to contribute troops to the U.K. and German-led enhanced forward presence battalions in Estonia and Lithuania, and was confirmed as a VJTF framework nation for 2020.

However, comments made by President François Hollande in a pre-Summit press conference, mentioning that “for France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat, [Russia] is a partner which, it is true, may sometimes, and we have seen that in Ukraine, uses force which we have condemned when it annexed Crimea,” have renewed doubts about France’s commitment to conventional deterrence. Taken together with the comments made by Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier about NATO’s “saber-rattling,” the French-German tandem seemed to go against the grain of the Summit overall.

However, in a surprising evolution, France decided to lift its long-standing opposition to the declaration of initial operational capability of the Alliance’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) system (cuing that the system is ready for the next stage of development). Paris was reluctant to admit the complementarity of the system with the nuclear deterrence forces that France preserves to the tune of about €3B per year. Paris’s concession was recognized in the communiqué, which acknowledged the vital role of nuclear weapons in providing peace and ensuring deterrence, and the fact that missile defense cannot substitute for nuclear weapons. The nature of political bargaining within NATO leads to think that France’s green light on BMDs may have been compensated by significant progress on other issues that are closer to French strategic interests, such as, the U.S. lifting its reluctance to a stronger role for the EU on defense issues, and NATO providing its intelligence capacities in the fight against ISIS.

The NATO-EU joint declaration represents a clear advance for French strategic interests, first and foremost on the struggle against the spillover effects of the regional instability in the Middle East, which hit France hard in 2015. The declaration also (finally) provides a framework to avoid costly duplication of missions, which is especially important for a French military that is approaching overstretch. It is also important in the context of France (and Germany) wanting to reinforce their European leadership following the British referendum.

France’s lip service towards Europe de la defense will be nicely complemented by the German desire, expressed in the White Paper, for the development of permanent structures of decision-making cooperation on security policy issues in the EU. Similarly, the French certainly welcome the possibility of a permanent civil-military headquarters for EU missions in the mid-term. Paris will follow the implementation of the advancements outlined in Berlin’s White Paper closely, keeping pressure on Germany to significantly improve its force projection capabilities, for example, and to deliver on the idea that the Bundeswehr should broaden its spectrum of capabilities and actions. In the current geopolitical context, France will also seek for a change in the German position concerning deployment in “minilateral” formats, remembering the Libyan fiasco in 2011 where Germany abstained from the UN vote establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, hampering solidarity with its French and British allies.

The Warsaw Summit and the German White Paper strengthen the legal underpinning of protecting European citizens, but they also seem to reaffirm the peculiar position of France and Germany within the Alliance and the European security architecture. It will fall upon them to build up a stronger role for the EU in security policy at a moment when the major European military power, the U.K., will direct its efforts towards NATO. At the same time, France and Germany continue to walk a thin line between engagement in NATO and openly doubting its orientations. The current political context is creating new European dividing lines that could well be detrimental to efficiently delivering on security.

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