John Keiger

Is the EU trying to hamstring the French military?

Is the EU trying to hamstring the French military?
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Much recent discussion has focussed on the collapse of Afghanistan and the decline of the West. The humiliating American-led Western retreat from Kabul is most poignant for the signal it sends to other ‘protected’ states, present-day and future. The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, Global Times, mockingly jibed in its editorial at the history of America abandoning its allies and warning how this might be an omen for Taiwan. But the Afghan smokescreen has obscured another aspect of Western decline: a European Court of Justice ruling of 15 July enforcing the same restrictions on ‘work time’ for member states’ military personnel as for any other worker, except on clearly specified military operations. If applied to the letter, the ruling would hamstring France as an effective operational military power and by extension constrain an important arm of western defence.

France is at present the sixth world military power. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council wielding a veto and the fourth largest nuclear power, France is about to see its operational capability – which underpins its diplomacy – undermined. That is a blow not only to Western defence, but significantly to EU, and finally British, defence. Ironically this move by the ECJ could push the EU further into the arms of Nato if the EU’s only large operational military power is restricted in this way.

France has, in effect, sought exemption from the 2003 EU working time directive for its military by claiming – perfectly rationally – that its armed forces should be ‘available at all times and in all places’, as enshrined in its Defence Code. Ironically, it was France that supported the 2003 directive which fixes maximum thresholds for work time, such as the minimum 11 hours rest per day and a maximum working week of 48 hours.

The episode is all the more demeaning as the case was brought to the ECJ by a Slovenian NCO, as Slovenia – along with Spain and France – had claimed exemption for their armed forces. France tried to contest the decision. But there is no appeal against an ECJ ruling. 

Opposition in France to the Court’s decision has for once united a dismally divided political class, the Elysee and the armed forces for undermining what the French refer to as their military’s ‘singularity’. Germany, by contrast, chose to apply the 2003 directive to its armed forces with the baleful consequences we can now observe of a reputation as a 9-5, 40 hour a week citizens’ militia, whose military contribution – even off the battlefield – would make General von Moltke turn in his grave.

As titular head of France’s armed forces, president Macron bombastically threatened: 

‘We have defended our status and will continue to do so to the end.’ 

And with characteristic Macronistic sophistry, that will be music to Viktor Orban’s ears, he opined: 

‘I am an ardent European, but I believe in the European way when I understand it and when I think it is good for national destiny.’

There is perhaps an additional dimension to Emmanuel Macron’s anxiety about the ruling. It will also apply to France’s gendarmerie, which is a military corps vital to maintaining public order at a time when street demonstrations threaten to become violent again.

But the ruling puts Emmanuel Macron in a difficult spot. 

First, his whole political essence is built around his support for a more integrated EU – doubtless to figure in his political re-election campaign over the next six months. Second, on 1 January 2022 France takes over the presidency of the EU Council. 

It isn't a good look, of course, for an EU leader to contest an EU ruling while fulminating against the likes of Hungary and Poland for their refusal to do so. Finally, one must feel a grain of sympathy for France whose armed forces are operational across the globe – notably 5,000 troops in Sub-Saharan Africa – sometimes effectively on behalf of the EU, whose member states make only token contributions to that effort. 

The EU’s hamstringing of France’s military forces is not only another act of Brussels’ self harm, more seriously it is a further blow to Western defence that will be welcomed eagerly by its rivals.

Written byJohn Keiger

John Keiger is a former Research Director in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Cambridge University and the biographer of Raymond Poincaré, France’s President before, during and after the First World War