France’s pact with Greece and support for European ‘strategic autonomy’ are ripping apart the alliance.
The Nato alliance has never enjoyed the easiest of relationships with the French, from the Gaullist insistence on opting out of the organisation’s integrated command structure in the 1960s to the Élysée’s more recent decision to abandon Nato’s combat mission in Afghanistan at the height of the insurgency in 2012.
Yet, no matter how difficult the French have proved to be as allies, their presence in Nato has always been tolerated on the grounds that, for all their stubbornness and duplicity, long-term Western interests are better served by keeping them onside than by allowing them to act as rogue operators on European defence issues.
Even when France’s preening president, Emmanuel Macron, openly decries an alliance that has maintained peace in Europe for more than seven decades as being “brain dead”, as he did in 2019, the tendency has been to overlook French indiscretions in the broader interest of maintaining transatlantic unity.
The willingness, though, of other Nato states – especially America – to continue tolerating France’s tiresome behaviour could soon reach breaking point if the French leader persists with pursuing policies that could ultimately lead to Nato’s collapse.
Mr Macron has already caused deep unhappiness in Nato circles by lending his support to calls by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to expedite plans for the formation of an independent European defence force. Mrs von der Leyen’s call for the EU to summon the “political will” to develop its own military capabilities came in the wake of the Biden administration’s inept handling of the Afghan withdrawal, which ended Nato’s two decades-long involvement in the Afghan conflict.
This prompted Mrs von de Leyen to back Mr Macron’s long-standing call for the EU to acquire “strategic autonomy”, providing it with the means to conduct its own military operations, independent of the existing Nato command structure. An EU summit on forging closer defence cooperation is scheduled to take place in France next year.
Such a move would undoubtedly weaken Nato’s effectiveness. The majority of European states already fail to fulfil their Nato responsibilities, and any commitments they make to a new EU force would result in a further diminution in their paltry contributions to the alliance’s defence.
Now the French president has provoked further consternation within Nato’s ranks after France and Greece signed a landmark military agreement at the end of last month which essentially amounts to a mutual assistance pact between two key members of the Nato alliance. Announcing the £2.6 billion deal with Greece to buy French warships, Mr Macron made it clear that he saw the agreement as the beginning of a common defence project that would ultimately provide the EU with the “power and ability to defend ourselves”.
The terms of the deal certainly set a dangerous precedent so far as Nato is concerned. For decades European defence has been underpinned by Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty which stipulates that an attack on one member state represents an attack on the entire alliance. Mr Macron has undermined this fundamental principle by agreeing a separate mutual defence pact with Greece which commits France to defend Greek interests independently of Nato.
Greek frustration over Nato’s ambivalent attitude towards Turkish meddling in the eastern Mediterranean, where the two countries are involved in a bitter dispute over energy interests, helps to explain Athens’s interest in bolstering its own defence needs.
Nevertheless, given Turkey’s strategic importance to Nato, the French pact with Greece runs the risk of creating damaging divisions at the heart of the alliance, a rift that will lead hostile states such as Russia and Iran to conclude that Nato is no longer capable of protecting its members’ interests.
Mr Macron’s motivation for securing a deal with Greece may be partly due to his deep unhappiness with the recent pact Britain and the US struck with Australia – known as Aukus – to build a new fleet of nuclear submarines, which meant the cancellation of £72.8 billion deal with France to build diesel-electric boats.
The agreement with Greece, though, comes against a background of increasingly irascible conduct by the French leader, which is especially evident in his attitude towards Britain.
French intransigence during the Brexit negotiations was a key factor in the creation of the detested Northern Ireland Protocol, while lingering French antipathy towards Britain over its departure from the EU has surely contributed to thousands of illegal immigrants being able to cross the Channel during the summer months.
France’s refusal to acknowledge British fishing rights has even seen Paris threaten to cut energy supplies to Britain, while French fishermen have threatened to disrupt Christmas preparations by blockading British ports.
These are not the actions of a valued Nato ally. They reflect the attitude of one that no longer has any desire to protect Nato’s interests.