Rishi Sunak May Have Exorcised The UK's Diplomatic Demons In Renewed Friendship With France
7 min read
After a winter of economic turmoil Rishi Sunak is still struggling to turn around the government's tattered reputation back home, but on the global stage he is enjoying greater success.
Standing side-by-side with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Friday afternoon, the Prime Minister projected an image of optimism for the rebuilding of the British-Franco relationship after half a decade of post-Brexit acrimony.
At a press conference under the splendid red, white and blue glass roof of the Jardin d’Hiver, the two leaders announced a multi-billion pound deal that will see a new migrant detention centre built on the coastline of northern France and hundreds more French police officers recruited to patrol the beaches. The funding represents a major beefing up of joint efforts to prevent small boats crossing the English Channel, with France expected to cover most of the cost.
Sunak's meeting with Macron yesterday was the first bilateral summit between the UK and France in five years. It is indicative that Sunak has successfully overseen an easing of tense relations between the neighbouring countries, which had been put under severe strain by barbed public remarks from former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Diplomatic figures who spoke to PoliticsHome in the run-up to the summit agreed relations between the UK and France fell to a historic low in the few years following the 2016 referendum.
“It reached the worst political relationship I can remember in my 40 years [career]," said Lord Peter Ricketts, who was the UK's ambassador to France between 2012 and 2016.
French-British politician Alexandre Holroyd, who sits in the French National Assembly where he is an influential voice on France's relationship with the UK, said it had "probably been the most difficult period in the relationship in my lifetime".
On Friday, however, any remnants of frostiness in the British-Franco relationship had melted away, with Sunak telling Macron he felt "fortunate to be serving alongside you", before a friendly embrace. Prior to the press conference, the pair had a one-on-one meeting lasting over an hour, with only themselves and their chiefs of staff in the room. This level of privacy in a meeting of major world leaders is an unusual move, and was interpreted as further evidence of their strong relationship.
Both UK and French sources describe the summit as the second in a series of three key events in which the two countries can demonstrate their renewed friendship after the UK's difficult exit from the European Union.
Last month's signing of the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland marked the first event, and saw Sunak and EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen unite to end a diplomatic row that has bedevilled London's relationship with its largest trading partner since early last year. The grand finalé will be King Charles and the Queen's state visit to France towards the end of this month.
“Let’s be honest: the relationship went through many difficulties,” an Élysee source said this week.
“But we believe this is the right movement to send the signal that on both sides, despite post-Brexit differences, we are totally committed to working together to the benefit of each other.”
The close proximity between the two countries, separated by just over twenty miles of water – or 30 kilometres, if you're speaking French – plus the fact that Macron is a fervent proponent of the European project, meant Brexit would inevitably pose a unique challenge to the British-Franco relationship, according to Lord Ricketts.
Sunak, like Johnson, is an ardent Brexiteer, but Ricketts felt that the former prime minister's combative approach to diplomatic relations exacerbated the problem and undermined EU trust in the UK.
“You can’t imagine two people more unalike," the crossbench peer said of the French president and former prime minister.
"Macron never appreciated Johnson’s tendency to play the UK relationship with France for a laugh and felt that he could never trust him to keep his word on issues they discussed.”
That was a view shared by former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb, the Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on France.
“There were some wisps of optimism that Johnson with his fluent French speaking skills would be able to create some rapport with President Macron, but that completely failed," the senior Tory back bencher told PoliticsHome.
For Holroyd, it is the belief in Paris that Sunak is a serious leader who can be trusted that has played an important part in the two sides being able to rebuild bridges in recent months. “When European partners meet with Rishi Sunak, they know it’s not going to leak within five minutes of leaving the room or be used as a political football for domestic purposes," he said.
The September 2021 announcement that the UK had signed a new security pact with the US and Australia called 'AUKUS' blindsided Paris, and further compounded the bitterness. The French side accused the participants of doing the deal behind their back, and felt it was further evidence that post-Brexit Britain was not a trustworthy partner. According to Crabb, the AUKUS news "genuinely left quite a number in the French foreign policy and defence establishment shell-shocked".
The current UK ambassador to France, Menna Rawlings, had started her role just a few weeks prior to the AUKUS spat, leaving her with the unenviable task of being the UK's woman in Paris at a time of what one source described as a "freezing of relations at a very high level".
Rather awkwardly, a fresh AUKUS announcement is expected in San Diego on Monday, just a few days after Sunak's meeting with Macron. UK sources stress, however, that their French counterparts have been briefed comprehensively on what the update will include, to ensure there are no surprises this time.
There was a further flashpoint in the period between Johnson's resignation and Sunak's arrival, when during last summer's Conservative leadership contest, soon-to-be-PM Truss pointedly refused to answer when asked whether President Macron was a "friend or foe" to the UK.
It was an "absolutely stupefying" moment, said Holroyd. Crabb too said he was "puzzled" by the incident, but did not believe it was Truss' actual view.
But little more than six months later, the British-Franco relationship is in a much stronger place.
The willingness of Macron to strike such a comprehensive migration agreement with the UK, which will involve France spending around two-and-a-half billion pounds, is seen as an outcome only made possible in this new era of relations, or what Sunak on Friday dubbed "a new beginning".
The improvement can be seen across government, with UK officials advising French counterparts on how to deliver an Olympic games, as Paris prepares to host the competition in 2024. France is particularly interested in how the UK used the 2012 games to regenerate poorer parts of east London, and how it can do something similar in less affluent parts of the French capital like Saint Denis.
While the atmosphere between London and Paris is now undoubtedly significantly warmer, there are still potential pressure points on the horizon as Sunak bids to deliver his domestic priorities.
Lord Ricketts told PoliticsHome he was "puzzled" by the government suggesting in the days leading up to Friday's summit that the Illegal Migration Bill might not be compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). “To announce it in the week that the PM is off to France to show the UK is back to working with its neighbours is not great," he said.
The PM on Friday sought to reassure Macron that he did not plan to breach international law to stop people reaching the UK in small boats.
"We worked really hard to come up with a law that is compliant with the ECHR," he told reporters. "That’s what’s taken a bit of time to get it right."
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