The future of the Franco-British relationshipBy Clara Castello
The narrative around Franco-British relations, in particular in the British media, is often told as a tale of mistrust and resentment. Viewed from this prism, it might seem natural to forecast hostility and divergence for Franco-British relations in the aftermath of Brexit.
However, we must not forget that Franco-British relations have also largely been shaped by cooperation and pragmatism. In particular in times of crisis – the two World Wars being the most obvious example – Britain and France have proven capable of overcoming their rivalry to work together. In that context, Brexit may be less damaging for Franco-British relations than some suggest. Indeed, many constants of that relationship remain, such as geographical realities, and important shared interests on economic, security and defence issues. What is more, this crisis may even – somewhat counter-intuitively – bring the two countries closer together.
Britain’s and France’s fates are tightly interwoven through their populations and their economies. First, France remains Britain’s closest neighbour on the European mainland. Both of their populations are deeply intertwined, as 300,000 French people reside in Britain, and vice versa. The 50-kilometer-long Channel Tunnel connecting both countries under the sea is a powerful symbol of this social and cultural linkage. This geographic and demographic reality inevitably links the two countries together, making a successful Franco-British relationship indispensable for both.
Britain and France are also linked by their closely intertwined economies. Indeed, pragmatism and common interests have generally prevailed in Franco-British economic relations, leading to each country now having large stakes in the other. For example, French energy giant EDF is tied to Britain with a £18 billion contract to build EPR nuclear reactors for the country, and in 2014 alone nearly 1,200 subsidiaries of British companies were based in France. France and Britain are thus bound to cooperate beyond Brexit to protect their own economic interests.
Shared Defence and Security interests
The theme of pragmatism in Franco-British relations also runs through defence and security affairs. In this particular sector, Franco-British cooperation is as close as ever, with no sign of abating. France and Britain are both nuclear powers (and the only two European nations with independent nuclear deterrents), NATO members, and permanent members of the UN Security Council. Both countries continue to be linked by bilateral ties and interests that transcend the Brexit issue. The 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, which created a Combined Join Expeditionary Force of 10,000 troops, joint military training and joint maritime taskforces, demonstrate the closeness of this relationship.
For the foreseeable future, both have strong incentives for increased cooperation – to maximise their influence in the Security Council, or to prepare for new threats in the environmental, cyber and space domains for example. As both countries have often reiterated, “the vital interests of one could not be threatened without the vital interests of the other equally being at risk”.
Keeping up appearances
For the sake of national ego and appearances, it is likely that despite its interest in entertaining close and friendly relations with France, Britain will still try, at least in the early post-Brexit years, to affirm its independence by disassociating itself from anything European – including France. This might lead to some – mostly minor – counter-productive decisions, such as the UK leaving the Erasmus+ study exchange scheme. However, on more meaningful matters, such as defence and security, Brexit may well end up being remembered as just a blip in the history of Franco-British relations.
Prudence remains essential
This is not to say that British and French officials can rest on their laurels. Brexit will have and has had negative consequences on cross-Channel relations – disagreements were numerous during the transition period, and more recently visible through vaccine disputes. Both countries will need to exercise care while rebuilding their relationship on new post-Brexit terms. The fact remains, however, that the foundations of that relationship remain largely unchanged.
In sum, although France and Britain may at times appear deeply divided over Brexit, we should not doom the future of cross-Channel relations so fast. Despite obvious reasons to assume that France and Britain would grow apart after Brexit, there are good reasons to think that close Franco-British relations remain vital and inevitable for the foreseeable future – even more so now, as both countries seek to reposition themselves in the post-Brexit international arena.
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