The Independent

Anglo-French reset presents chance to be candid friends


Quietly and carefully the stage has been set for the opening of a new era in UK-French relations. You may have noted the amiable sounds that have come from Paris in recent days, with French presidenti­al sources speaking of “the beginning of a beautiful, renewed friendship”.

Similar mood music has been wafting in the opposite direction. As you may also have noted, the tabling of new legislatio­n designed to address small boat crossings has largely avoided blaming the French, at least in official pronouncem­ents. Oh yes, and school trips, it appears, will also become easier.

In other words, there has been a lot of diplomatic preparatio­n for the day-long meeting between Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron – the first top-level UK-French meeting for five years. And the results will doubtless be reflected in the official communique and the obligatory press conference.

Nor is it hard to predict how, in some of the basics – starting with the tone and the quality of communicat­ion – there will be an improvemen­t. The UK prime minister has considerab­ly more in common – in career history, manner and character – with Macron than his immediate predecesso­rs, and should find it easier to establish a rapport with the French president.

The background conditions, of course, are also considerab­ly more propitious than in the recent past. Even discountin­g the personalit­y aspect, the difficult Brexit talks could not but dominate dealings the between Boris Johnson and Macron relationsh­ip. The recent Windsor Framework for Northern Ireland – an ingenious bureaucrat­ic formulatio­n that may promise more than it actually delivers – brings to an end one particular source of EU-UK friction, at least for the time being.

A degree of unity on the war in Ukraine offers an opportunit­y for sharing high-flown rhetoric in support of freedom against aggression

A degree of unity on the war in Ukraine offers an opportunit­y for sharing high-flown rhetoric in support of freedom against aggression, while also boding well for some agreement on more

nuts and bolts defence cooperatio­n – a generally reliable standby of UK-France relations, when tensions persist elsewhere. There may also be room for additional cooperatio­n on energy projects, including nuclear power.

It appears there will also be pledges of enhanced cooperatio­n on what is now referred to as the “small boats” issue, with Sunak offering more funding for French law enforcemen­t efforts along the coast, and France offering to do more to prevent dangerous and illegal crossings.

Whether that will extend to accepting the return of people who fail to obtain asylum in the UK after crossing from France, however, is another matter. Macron has quite enough on his plate domestical­ly – as the latest French President to be trying, and so far failing, to raise the country’s state pension age – without risking additional public hostility on the immigratio­n front.

For all the friendly words that will doubtless be exchanged, however, and for all the hopes the two leaders will express for a new and more productive relationsh­ip, there are reasons why cracks may very soon start to open up again – simply because the interests of the two countries and their allegiance­s remain at odds.

The first obvious crack relates to “small boats”. France has no interest whatever in taking back those who have tried and failed to gain asylum in the UK, which is likely to be an element in any successful move by the UK to stop or reduce the Channel crossings.

France does have an interest in losing the encampment­s that have grown up along the northern French coast, not just outside Calais. And it could have an interest in reducing the number of would-be migrants and asylum-seekers trying to reach France from Italy, so long as this was a result of the closure of the UK route, rather than an increase in the number of those seeking to stay in France.

But the UK’s interest in halting or reducing the small boat crossings is far greater than that of France. This is why the UK

has to pay France for such cooperatio­n as is agreed, and will have to pay more for more cooperatio­n. Nor will even a much higher level of cooperatio­n solve the problem for the UK. There will be fewer boats only if the odds on reaching and remaining in the UK are drasticall­y reduced, to the point that paying the trafficker­s makes no sense.

And this depends entirely on the UK, and how ready the politician­s are – really ready, not just in theory – not only to pass the illegal immigratio­n bill, but to implement it. So long as the small boats keep coming, it will be all too tempting to blame France.

A second crack could open up over defence. A part of this is practical: France is still smarting – not without reason – for what it sees as the way it was double-crossed on a deal it had concluded to supply submarines to Australia, after Australia, the UK and the US announced a new defence pact, known as AUKUS. It will take more than warm smiles on the part of Sunak and Macron to rebuild the level of trust that existed before.

Arguably the greater part, however, is strategic and philosophi­cal. The war in Ukraine has reinvigora­ted the Nato alliance and, for the time being, the US commitment to Europe’s defence. It has also amplified the Atlanticis­t voice of the east and central Europeans, both in Nato and in the European Union, who claim they were “right” about Russia.

These developmen­ts have muted the long-standing ambition of France, of which Macron was an enthusiast­ic proponent, for the EU to have far greater autonomy in defence and security. This French project, however, could return in a hurry if Donald Trump (or a Trump-like figure) were to win next year’s US presidenti­al election.

Whatever happens in the US, however, the idea will not go away, as it has its own logic – so long as the EU exists and the French and Germans foot the biggest bills. European “strategic autonomy”, as it is known, is a concept the UK was never going to sign up to when it was in the EU, and the prospect is even

more remote since Brexit. In this respect, AUKUS could be seen a sign of post-Brexit times.

Of course a new tone, improved personal relations and a new quality of communicat­ion between the UK and France are not nothing. But the difference­s in longer-term interests, whether in immigratio­n, defence, or indeed in trade regulation­s after Brexit should not be denied.

These difference­s were inevitably masked to an extent while the UK was in the EU, but there is no need for such hypocrisy now. Indeed, such difference­s are all the more reason why the UK should stop trying to pretend that France is, or should be, our bosom friend, and start treating it respectful­ly as a foreign country. More broadly, perhaps, Brexit may come to be seen less as a sudden breach than as a symptom of a deeper underlying difference, first of all with France.

One aspect of that difference will be on show at the end of this month, when King Charles makes the first state visit of his reign to the Republic of France and then on to Germany. Whatever policy cracks may open up after the Sunak-Macron summit will thus be bridged for a while by this lavish dose of theatre. When the magic fades, however, it will be time for the UK and France to reset their relationsh­ip as more candid friends. With their preference for practicali­ty before ideology, Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak could just be the leaders to do it.

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 ?? (PA) ?? Sunak has considerab l y more in common with Macron than his immediate predecesso­rs
(PA) Sunak has considerab l y more in common with Macron than his immediate predecesso­rs

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