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National Security Relations with France after Brexit

Peter Ricketts
Briefing Papers, 15 January 2018
France, Defence Policy, UK, Intelligence
Written by Lord Peter Ricketts, former National Security Adviser and UK Ambassador to France, this Briefing Paper recommends that the UK and France step up joint work on defence, security and nuclear deterrence policy.

Britain’s departure from the EU will put a much greater load on bilateral relations with its former partners. Membership of the EU involves continuous coordination on a vast range of issues, and creates the habit of thinking and working together. Disconnected from that network, there is a real risk that Britain will drift apart from its European neighbours and come to seem less relevant to their perceptions of their core interests.

That would be particularly damaging in the case of France, a country with which Britain shares not only a long and rich history, but a similar worldview and vital national security interests. President Emmanuel Macron has made clear that his top international priority is a stronger and more dynamic EU, on the basis of Franco-German leadership. So Britain will have to work harder to maintain its key relationship with France, even in areas that lie outside the scope of the EU. This paper will examine the current state of cooperation in the areas of defence, security and foreign policy, and make some specific proposals, in advance of the Franco-British Summit on 18 January, for how these should be further developed in the post-Brexit period.

Conclusions and Recommendations

  • Brexit will not weaken the case for close UK–French defence and security cooperation, but it will change the context and create the risk of the two countries drifting apart. More structured ministerial consultations, for example in a two-plus-two foreign and defence minister format, would be a useful way of reinforcing cooperation.
  • The first priority in UK–French nuclear cooperation is to bring the Teutates programme agreed in 2010 to full operational capacity on schedule in 2022, and to ensure that both countries derive full benefit from it.
  • Britain and France, as Europe’s two nuclear powers, should step up their consultations on the implications for their nuclear deterrence policy of the changing strategic environment, in particular a more aggressive Russia, the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear power, and the uncertainties about the longer-term US commitment to NATO following President Donald Trump’s hesitations over re-affirming the Article V commitment. They should take a joint initiative on nuclear deterrence policy at the July 2018 NATO Summit.
  • The successful development of a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force gives Britain and France a highly trained pool of forces capable of a wide range of missions up to high-intensity combat. To keep up the momentum of the initiative, it will be important to find an opportunity to employ the capability. Given the troubled state of international security, opportunities should not be lacking, whether as part of a multilateral operation – for example, under UN or NATO auspices – or as a bilateral deployment in circumstances where both countries have interests at stake.
  • The Unmanned Combat Air System programme is a flagship for UK–French defence equipment cooperation, aiming to deliver a key capability for the 2030s. It supports innovative research and vital defence industrial skills. The two governments should maintain the programme during the current demonstration phase to produce airframes by the early 2020s for operational testing; a withdrawal by either side at this stage of such a significant programme would undermine confidence in the wider Lancaster House defence equipment programme.
  • If UK–French equipment cooperation is to offer real savings to the two countries, the model developed with MBDA in the missile sector, which has achieved real efficiencies through inter-dependence and specialisation, should be applied to other sectors as part of refreshing the 2010 agenda.
  • It would be damaging to British, French and wider European interests for the proposed European Defence Fund to erect protectionist obstacles to cooperation between the British and French defence industries, the two largest in Europe.
  • Bilateral cooperation between the intelligence and policy communities of the two countries on counterterrorism and cyber threats is long established and has become even closer in response to recent terrorist attacks. It is crucial that Brexit does not adversely affect this.
  • Given the scale of movement of people and goods between the two countries, Britain and France have a particular stake in achieving an EU–UK strategic partnership providing continuity on law enforcement and criminal justice. The alternative of negotiating new bilateral agreements would be long, complex and uncertain, and any gap would create serious security problems.
  • France is bearing the brunt of the problems and costs of ensuring the security of the juxtaposed British border controls at Calais. Britain should continue to contribute to the costs, to help with humanitarian issues and to take joint action against the traffickers.
  • Post-Brexit, Britain will have to work harder through bilateral contacts to influence EU decision-making, and it will have to become more entrepreneurial in foreign policy if it is to exert real influence. The UK should aim to strengthen its foreign policy partnership with France, in the UN Security Council, in NATO and through small-group diplomacy. 


The Lord Ricketts GCMG GCVO
Senior Associate Fellow

Lord Ricketts spent 40 years as a British diplomat before retiring in early 2016.His last post was Ambassador to France, where he was... read more

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