Open Europe Blog

Syria will not see a rerun of the Anglo-French Cooperation we saw in Libya

Commenting on Conservative Home‘s special jury on the events in Syria Open Europe’s Christopher Howarth argues that Anglo-French co-operation on defence and foreign policy has taken a knock from the UK’s decision to pull out of military action in Syria:

David Cameron’s Syrian fiasco will reverberate through many aspects of politics. But how will it affect the UK’s international standing?

The US may now look at the UK in a different light but, ironically, within the EU the UK’s reputation may improve. Europe tends to dislike what it perceives as rushed and unilateral military action (a UK/US-led operation is seen as unilateral). Parliamentary opposition to military action is something most EU states can easily understand and the UK’s break with the US may seem refreshing.

However, there is an important exception – the French Government. France and the UK are the only two EU states with the capability and (until now) the will to act. Recognising this, the FCO have been at pains to improve Anglo-French defence and foreign relations – UK help for France in Mali being a recent example. The FCO realise that if France and the UK cooperate they can be a powerful force within the EU and indeed the world. The most serious ramification of Syria is that these plans for Anglo-French defence cooperation may have taken a knock.

We have been here before. The last time UK foreign policy went spectacularly awry was in Suez. Then as now the UK bailed on France. We remember Suez as a lesson in the need to work with the US, for the French it was a lesson in the folly of trusting Anglo-Saxons. Things are nowhere near as bad this time but the relationship needs to be repaired.

Of course Syria is not Suez and the lessons will be different. Eden was tripped up by opposition from the US and Tory liberal internationalists, appalled by the naked pursuit of British interests. Cameron’s Tory opposition came from the descendants of the traditional wing who backed Eden, but who fail this time to see a British interest. After Suez, liberal policy makers agreed that the UK’s role in the world had shrunk and that it was a mistake to act without the US.

This time it is important to ensure that we do not accept any further shrinkage and that future US action is not spurned by the UK and an already sceptical EU. Like Anthony Eden, David Cameron has come unstuck on an area of policy that seemed to be his primary interest. Unlike Eden, Cameron has the opportunity to move on and repair the damage.

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