The press release issued by the Ministry of Defence on 20 November 2023.
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps addressed attendees at the Franco-British Council Defence Conference reception alongside French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu after their bilateral meeting on 20 November 2023.
Ladies and gentlemen and to my now friend, Sébastien, it’s wonderful to have you here in London and thank you for joining us at the magnificent ambassador’s residence. And thank you to you for welcoming us here this evening.
And it’s a timely moment to be here because this year we not only commemorate 80 years since D-Day, it’s actually 120 years since the signing of our Entente Cordiale.
What precisely is it that makes our entente so special? It was after all, supposed to be nothing more than an informal understanding. And yet it survived the loss of millions during the Great War.
It was the animating spirit that flowed through the heroic soldiers of the Free French on D-Day. And, in our own century, it has remained, and been reanimated by the Lancaster House Treaties of 2010.
Perhaps the best answer to this entente conundrum was provided by Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander of the combined British, French and American forces in World War 1.
Foch, whose statue stands proudly just 20 minutes walk from here, once said: “The moral factor is the most important in war.”
This, to me, is the crux. We share the same values: liberty, equality, fraternity. Values that are embedded in our DNA. And values that mean there is far more despite some bumpy times, that unites us than divides us.
You saw that in the magnificent state visit that has already been referenced where Their Majesties the King and Queen visited France earlier this year.
And, since becoming Defence Secretary, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing our entente in action. Today our forces are operating across air, land and sea.
Our industries are pushing the boundaries of technologies in everything from complex weapons to Maritime Mine Counter Measures and missiles.
And our great Combined Joint Expeditionary Force is coming into its own. Able to muster more than 10,000 at a moments’ notice, it has created the structures to allow us to plan and operate together and over the few months the Griffin exercises will train our people to cope with the intensity of maritime warfare anywhere in the world.
However, I think we need to acknowledge that world is rapidly changing, the threats that we face are increasing.
120 years ago, Foch wrote “Truly enough, a new era had begun, the era of national wars, of wars which were to assume a maddening pace”.
Words that seem especially prescient today with Ukraine fighting to kick Russian invaders out of their own country and Israel pursuing the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, those who brought mass slaughter to the people of Israel on October 7.
That ‘maddening pace’ that he talked about as being fuelled both by ideology and realpolitik.
Hamas shares an ideology with that of Daesh and al Qaeda offshoots that are growing in influence across Sub Saharan Africa for example.
Behind Hamas lies the malign shadow of Iran which continues to pull the strings of its other proxies, no matter whether it’s Palestinian Islamic Jihad; Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis of Yemen or the militants of different locations from Iraq to Syria.
And as Iran and North Korea send suicide drones and artillery to Russia, Russia invites Hamas to the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has a “no limits partnership” with China. And China, in the midst of massive military and economic expansion, has a mutual defence treaty policy with North Korea.
Collectively, these nations seek to rewrite the international order in their own image.
If we are to respond then we must follow Foch in showing resolution, courage and commitment. And I think that means three things.
First, showing our wholehearted backing for Ukraine.
The media focus might have switched on to the Middle East but our focus, as Sébastien and I discussed today, has not.
Putin’s success wouldn’t just be a disaster for Ukraine and of course her neighbours, it would give autocrats everywhere the green light to ride rough shod over the international rules-based system which is why I told President Zelenskyy, when I visited him in Kyiv earlier this year, our support remains absolutely unwavering.
As winter draws on, we know Ukraine can expect more attacks.
So, the international community must continue working with coalition colleagues to keep providing Ukraine with equipment and ammunition that she requires.
And we must keep combatting Russia and their campaign of disinformation which seeks to make others forget Ukraine’s plight.
Second, we must shore up our international order, which means continuing to bolster NATO, which is the bedrock of our European shared defence.
Next year the Alliance marks its 75th anniversary and it remains in rude health, much strengthened by the partnerships with countries like France.
It has played a pivotal role in reassuring our Eastern European allies and deterring further Russian aggression.
Indeed, much to Putin’s chagrin, NATO is now stronger than it was before he invaded, with the addition of Finland and soon, we very much hope, Sweden as well.
But there is more to do.
Whether reinforcing deterrence and defence along the Alliance’s Eastern and Northern flanks or providing greater reassurance to nations like Moldova who have greatly been affected by Russia’s war.
Finally, we must elevate the entente.
France is already the UK’s closest ally in Europe, but, as this year’s Defence Command Paper refresh and the Franco-British summit in March underlined, ours is a relationship which has room to grow still.
As the threat of extremism rises again, we can increase our efforts to share intelligence, counter terror and combat the cyber misinformation that poisons our national debate.
We can do more on capabilities too, pressing ahead with the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon programme that we discussed this afternoon, and pursuing the innovations that will help to deliver directed energy weapons, deep precision strike and future combat air systems.
Lastly, there’s more we can do on operations as well.
I already talked about CJEF is up and running but we must think about adapting it to operate in ever more contested areas such as the High North.
And, of course, we are looking forward to future coordinated carrier deployments in the Indo-Pacific.
Not merely a means of mutually supporting each other’s task groups, improving the interoperability of our embarked helicopters and testing our un-crewed autonomous vehicles at sea.
But, for the first time, a demonstration of complementary and persistent European presence in a region of critical importance when we do so.
But Sébastien I think this is all just the start.
And that’s why you’re here today. It’s why we’ve had those excellent discussions this afternoons. We’ve got our brightest brains I’m told from the military, government, industry and academia, even one of two members of the press from both sides of the Channel.
Opportunity abounds for us and we need your help deciding where we go next.
Next year’s momentous anniversaries are about much more
than honouring the past, as important as that is. They offer us important insights into our future.
Now, by the end of the Great War, Field Marshall Foch was leading both the French and British forces to victory.
And on the base of his statue in London the following words are inscribed “I am conscious of having served England as I served my own country”.
He understood that our collective strength lay, not in the might of our arms, but in the strength of our shared values.
I have no doubt that as long as we keep those principles of freedom, justice and democracy uppermost in our minds, then we will not simply follow Marshall Foch in preserving our entente cordiale but, 120 years on, transform it into an entente supreme that merits a third plaque on the wall outside.
Sébastien, thank you very much indeed.