by Nick Ottens
Analysts from the Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit, a think tank that advises the German parliament and government on foreign and security policy, recommended the creation of a joint French-German air force last month as a way to deepen military cooperation between continental Europe’s two major powers. It’s an advice that policy makers in the two countries are unlikely to take to heart.
It’s not for a lack of theoretically advantageous military aspects that such a joint air force won’t fly. It could certainly allow both countries to operate and procure aircraft more efficiently. But it makes little strategic sense, particularly from the French perspective.
The German analysts admit that a deepening of defense ties with their French neighbors would put Germany in the leading position. They specifically refer to the “Weimar Triangle,” the loose grouping of France, Germany and Poland. Closer relations with both its eastern and western neighbors should give Germany the strategic comfort it needs to dominate Europe, even if it’s not quite aspiring to such a position for understandable historical reasons. Implicit in their argument is that it would isolate the British.
Which is precisely why France won’t play ball. Although little is yet known of President François Hollande’s foreign policy thinking, his predecessor, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, pursued a close military relationship with the United Kingdom, in part to prevent German hegemony on the continent, even if he toed the German line in the eurozone.
Sarkozy recognized that the dynamic that has shaped European economic and political integration since the end of the Second World War — French-German parity — is a thing of the past. While it ended with the German reunification, the new reality only really manifested itself twenty years later in the European sovereign debt crisis. Germany is the only major power in Europe that still enjoys the unwavering trust of investors and continues to boast economic growth. The future of German industry looks bright, in large part thanks to labor market reforms that were enacted during Gerhard Schröder’s left-wing government in the early years of the last decade. French industry, by contrast, is in decline, in large part due to the excessive pay and compensation expectations of French workers, union strength and political ineptitude. In this regard, Hollande’s Socialist Party government is even less likely than Sarkozy’s was to improve the situation.
There’s similarly no indication that the new president is more in favor of a French-German condominium in the heart of Europe than his predecessor was. To the contrary. For ideological reasons, he has aligned with the Southern European economies that have quickly grown wary of German-imposed austerity. It makes little sense to assume that he will pursue a closer alliance with Germany in the security area, if only because it contradicts French interests.
When Sarkozy recognized that French-German parity was a fantasy, he reached out to David Cameron in Westminster who was only too keen to reciprocate. Cameron’s foreign policy may be perilously ill-defined, but at least he saw an opportunity when it presented itself. A strong Franco-German bloc in the European Union is the last thing Britain wants if it is to remain a member state as it would put the French in a position to demand more protectionist policies, not just for agriculture but their struggling manufacturing base as well — an affront to the British entrepreneurial and free trade spirit.
Britain and France already account for half of European defense spending in NATO. They are the only European nations with aircraft carriers in their navies. While they deny plans to share an aircraft carrier in the future, they have pledged to be able to deploy an integrated carrier strike group by the 2020s. They have also agreed to establish a joint expeditionary force under the 2010 Defence and Security Cooperation Treaty.
Evidenced by the leading role Britain and France played in last year’s NATO intervention in Libya — wherein Germany notably sat on the sidelines — the two countries have many interests in common. Free shipping in the Mediterranean has been at the center of British naval policy for over a century. Sarkozy established a Mediterranean Union. Though ill-fated, it signaled France’s ambitions in the region. Paris still enjoys influence in French-speaking West Africa. It helped remove Laurent Gbagbo from power in Côte d’Ivoire in March of last year when he refused to concede defeat in a presidential election. Presently, it’s engaged in talks to diffuse the unrest in Mali where radical Islamists have taken over control in the north.
Germany is conspicuously absent from all of these Atlantic endeavors. Rather, it’s turned east where it is highly dependent on Russia for its natural gas supply. Hence the concerns of Central and Eastern European states like Poland and Ukraine about an axis Berlin-Moscow that could jeopardize their interests. These countries, as well as the Baltic states and the Czech Republic, are economically integrated with Germany but counting on the United States to provide them security.
Even if Merkel recently appears to have cooled to the prospect of a Russian alliance and even if there is strong opposition in Germany, especially on the left, to closer relations with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, German interests are undeniable. The country gets more than a third of its natural gas from Russia. Once it’s shut all of its nuclear reactors, planned for 2022 — coinciding with the planned introduction of the aforementioned Anglo-French expeditionary force — that share can only rise, unless the shale revolution reaches places like Poland and Ukraine, which are estimated to possess among the largest shale gas deposits in Europe, faster than anyone anticipates.
The Nord Stream pipeline symbolizes Germany’s new Eastern policy. If it can import natural gas from Russia directly, the transfer states in between lose leverage and Moscow can balance its relations with Europe at their expense. At present, it can’t afford to turn off the gas supply that runs through Poland and Ukraine indefinitely for it would ultimately inhibit Russia’s ability to sell — when the state is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports for its own income. Nord Stream changes the dynamic.
The two main transfer states are well aware of it. Poland’s foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski warned Germany in February of this year not to get “too big for its boots.” When it does, he added, “we always automatically add allies.” Prime Minister Mykola Azarov of Ukraine urged Europe in May not to draw an “iron curtain” around his country and, as a reason why, he promised that Ukraine would increase its natural gas production by as much as 25 percent over the next three years.
Rather ahistorically, French-Russian relations haven’t markedly improved since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But France is deepening its relations with Russia’s neighbors. It is the largest contributor of foreign direct investment in Poland. France supported the dual ascendency of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union and NATO. These countries are full Francophonie member states. The remaining Eastern European countries maintain an observer status in this organization.
It isn’t difficult to imagine them strengthening their ties with France if the German-Russian relationship seems a threat. As the United States “pivots” to Asia, the British-French security alliance could be an alternative guarantor of their sovereignty in NATO.
As much as the Germans correctly interpret this development as an obstacle to their own ambitions, putting together a joint air force with the French won’t change the larger strategic landscape.
Where would it deploy? The Germans have no desire to intervene militarily in faraway places like West Africa. The French won’t be keen to put their own firepowers in the hands of a country that, to them, seems to prioritize economics over moral obligations to former communist states in Europe.
Ultimately, it’s a question of balance. French and German interests are increasingly divergent. Germany is the dominant partner in the relationship; the French need leverage. In the economic sphere, that leverage is the Mediterranean member states who are just as wary of German-imposed austerity in Europe as much of France is. In the security realm, it’s the British. If there is ever to be a joint air force in Europe, it will be Anglo-French or one involving several countries to prevent Germany from controlling it.
Before the Germans start thinking that maybe Britain opting out of the European Union altogether might not be such a bad development for them in that case, they should remember that the question, indeed, is one of balance. For where the British give the French the leverage they need to maintain a favorable strategic environment, they are able to help prevent Germany from letting the “anti-austerity” countries set policy in Europe. Although, at present, policy makers in Berlin don’t seem to be fretting about the possibility of a British exit as much as therefore they ought to.