France has taken over the half-yearly presidency of the European Union (EU) Council from Slovenia on July 1. The change of guard at the helm of the EU is a routine affair. However, the French presidency of the Union seems to point to a new impetus in EU affairs, as it is the first opportunity after Nicolas Sarkozy took the reins at The Élysée Palace. At present European affairs are more or less a rerun of the summer of 2005 when the French and Dutch electorates rejected the EU Constitution. This experience is again being enacted with Irish voters rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in June. In fact, the Irish referendum was a litmus test for the European leadership, which after the jolt of 2005 has presented a reformed version of the Constitution to the electorate. Quite understandably, the leadership in various EU member countries is in a dilemma about the right path to proceed further.
At the outset the French presidency might have an ambitious programme covering many aspects like environment, energy security, immigration, external affairs, etc. But more interestingly, France has been a talking point in the global security discourse after it recently came out with a White Paper on Defence and National Security. The international Response to the White Paper has mainly focussed on the portion which suggests that France is willing to renew its ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) when the Euro-Atlantic alliance completes its 60th year of existence in 2009. After more than 40 years, France envisages joining the command structures of the NATO again.
The first issue of note in this regard is the French view of the United States. In the 1990s, Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister, popularised the term hyperpuissance (hyperpower) to characterise the United States and its role in a unipolar world. France has always been an ardent advocate of multipolarity and the significance of other powers like France, Russia, India and China in the contemporary world. The French belief in multipolarity became evident when, along with Germany, it staunchly opposed the US-led intervention in Iraq in 2003. However, the present White Paper remains silent about multipolarity, though it prioritises multilateralism and obliquely refers to ‘unilateralist temptations’. In fact, the worst difference in the transatlantic alliance over the unilateral American intervention in Iraq has already become history. And unlike their predecessors, both Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, seem to be Atlanticist in their approach. The most valuable lesson both Sarkozy and Merkel seem to have learnt is that in order to make the transatlantic alliance - of which NATO is the most crucial component - more cohesive, challenging US supremacy at least in public would be counterproductive.
Although the White Paper suggests French participation in all NATO command structures, it also highlights time and again French independence in various areas like nuclear forces, decision making, and assessment. And it states that French units would not be posted under permanent NATO command during times of peace. It emphatically denies that the NATO and EU are in competition as far as the latter’s military capability is concerned and conceives of an independent 60,000-strong European crisis management force (generally termed as European Union Rapid Reaction Force-EU-RRF). The actualisation of an independent European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) is one of the cherished ambitions of the European leadership. While the EU leadership considers that an independent European military capability would increase the prestige of the Union, Americans tend to view it with suspicion. Though the EURRF has been talked about since the Helsinki Headline Goal of 1999, it has still not fructified. Though the ESDP has been prioritised in the White Paper, the centrality of NATO and its pre-eminence in the present French security thinking can be discerned.
One may wonder whether this points to a shift in the French approach, which so far has been Europeanist, critical of the sole superpower, and believed in an independent foreign and security policy. Though references to French independence are ubiquitous in the White Paper, its new approach towards NATO is also recognisable. The White Paper manifests the fact that France has realised the changing nature of NATO. NATO today is definitely not the small organisation of the Fifties whose motto, in Lord Ismay’s words, was, "keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down". The Cold War notion of NATO experienced a paradigm shift in the 1990s. It has not only enlarged itself by including states from Central and East Europe but has also been actively engaged in Afghanistan since 2001.
As both Europe and the United States at present face the common threat of religious-motivated terrorism and given that the menace does not always emanate from outside the transatlantic space but from within as well, a transatlantic rapprochement would prove beneficial. It appears that France has come to view NATO as the most effective tool to deal with the present threat. Given that a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan is not on the horizon, both the US and its European partners seem to have no other choice but to be prepared for a long stay in Afghanistan as well as to increase their troop contributions if the situation so warrants.
It is more than likely that France during its EU presidency would attempt to focus more on the ESDP. But it would not be considered as a competitor of NATO because that would lead to duplication of efforts, multi-tasking and resource crunch. Strategically, the ESDP would always remain a “European ambition” but as the White Paper has stressed “European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance are complementary.” This emphasis would remain the guiding principle for France in its quest for NATO.