The title of this article may seem like a staggeringly misplaced and ill-timed question. After all, is France not militarily engaged in Mali, the Central Africa Republic and Syria? Is Paris not involved in the type of crises that have a direct impact on European security, when so many of its fellow European states shy away from military action? Has France not jostled its way alongside London as the United States’ partner of choice on military affairs? Did France not recently agree to spend an extra €3.8 billion on defence over the next four years?
Yet despite all of France’s efforts in the realm of military affairs, it has taken its eye off the single-most important issue of its national security: the European balance of power. It scarcely needs repeating that the Franco-German relationship is central to European stability. Yet, despite the fact that the French economy has faired relatively well during the economic downturn, Paris has watched on while Germany has steadily accrued more of its own political power during the eurozone crisis.
Francois Hollande came to office in 2012 on a ticket of ending austerity in Europe, which, if read correctly, meant challenging Germany’s hegemony on European economic policy. It did not take long for Chancellor Merkel to cajole President Hollande into backtracking on his electoral pledge to the French people. Merkel also dragged President Hollande along to the Minsk II talks as a way to bring a European face to what was essentially German diplomacy. Seemingly, on many fronts France is helplessly following Germany’s lead.
Under these circumstances Paris must see the British EU referendum as a strategic opportunity. Yet France’s position on the ‘British question’ is not entirely clear, and in all likeliness what it thinks about the United Kingdom’s (UK) reform agenda will be linked to Berlin’s own stance. As François Heisbourg recently remarked, France will require an operational policy to answer the British question but it can only really do so with Germany. This line of action has already presented itself. Think of Merkel and Hollande’s recently reported rebuttal to Cameron over his demands for reform connected to the eurozone. So far, France has appeared less amendable to London’s demands than Germany.
On this front the French find themselves in a strategic paradox. On the one hand, it can help the UK pull away from the European Union (EU) by rejecting British demands. This may or may not lead to a greater motivation to deepen EU integration on the part of the remaining EU members, but without the UK Germany’s hand might be further strengthened. On the other hand, it can help keep the UK inside the EU by giving in to some of London’s demands. This may lead to a slower pace of EU integration, but with the UK inside the EU the European balance of power can be maintained. Of course, these two hypotheses depend entirely on how the UK positions itself after the EU referendum; whatever the outcome. They are also ultimately dependant on how the British public choose to vote.
If France helps push away the UK from the EU it will be left alone with Germany. In one very specific sense, this may not necessarily hurt the French. It would, for example, mean that the danger of the British and the Germans doing a deal behind Paris’ back would be diminished. With Britain out of the way, Paris would be able to push ahead with deeper EU integration through the eurozone and it could have some influence over the direction of the EU. Paris could bolster the Franco-German relationship at the heart of the EU, while also calling London when military cooperation is called for (particularly through NATO). Some may also view a move away from Anglo-Saxon economic orthodoxy positively.
This first strategy of helping to push away the UK also depends on what Berlin thinks. It would be a grave misjudgement to think that Germany would automatically want to be left alone with France as Europe’s chief power brokers. As the Financial Times stated back in February, Merkel will not want to be left alone with France on economic policy related to competition and free trade. The current status quo of deepening economic integration through the eurozone on the one hand, and to have a strong pro-market, pro-free trade ally in the form of Britain on the other, suits Berlin’s national interests. Why would it want to change this situation?
Yet the cost of helping to push away the UK may, over the longer-term, hurt Paris. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU could seriously dent France’s room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis Berlin. France might find it increasingly difficult to facedown Berlin over its designs for the future shape of European integration. Yet any strategy of accommodation will hinge on Paris’ appetite for pragmatism. While some in the French political elite may bemoan Britain’s à la carte mentality towards the EU, others might be more tolerant of the idea of a multi-speed Europe, albeit not at any price.
Paris cannot remain tight-lipped on the British question for much longer, although it has probably done so because the British Prime Minister has not really shown his hand yet. If France wishes to see the UK leave the EU, then it may have to face the consequences of a more powerful Germany and an EU whose centre of gravity is likely to move eastwards. This is not even to speak of how Washington could view the post-UK European order. Lastly, any French decision to help lock-out the UK may have dire strategic consequences in the future. Germany is economically powerful today, but will it always remain so? One analyst believes that ‘Das Modell Deutschland’ is far from the efficient and sustainable economic model that it is often lauded as.
If France wants to help keep the UK in the EU, then Paris must come out fighting as the fulcrum in the European balance of power. In this sense, if France is to have any say over the future direction of Europe it must keep both Berlin and London in play. France’s next presidential election will be held in 2017. By this time, the incoming French president will hopefully know how the British people have voted, but he or she may be faced with a completely different strategic landscape in Europe. While the British public will ultimately decide the fate of the European balance of power, Paris must move fast if it is to have any meaningful say over the contours of the British referendum debate and Europe’s coming balance of power.
Daniel Fiott is a Senior Editor of European Geostrategy. He is also a FWO Fellow at the Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel.