A reset in relations with France can’t come soon enough
This year has seen Britain’s relations with its nearest continental neighbour reach their lowest point in decades.
Given the history, geography and overlapping interests, the relationship will always be a competitive one with a degree of friction. But current relations are dire and counterproductive.
The ink was hardly dry on the Brexit trade deal before a war of words began over fish. The year continued with rows over vaccines, energy and migrants boiling over into insults and finger-pointing. Lots of this was political theatre of course. But behind it lies a real and damaging deterioration in trust.
The sudden unveiling of the Indo-Pacific AUKUS pact soured relations further. The French considered it a gratuitous exclusion of a close military ally and in a region where it has a shared strategic interest.
Then came the shocking deaths of 27 people in the Channel trying to reach the UK. What should have been a sombre wake-up call for both governments descended into more blame and criticism.
The optimistic view is that the new post-Brexit order was always going to involve some gnashing of teeth, especially considering the electoral cycle in France, but that the turbulence will be temporary.
None of the disagreements over the last year on migration, fishing rights, Covid restrictions or anything else, can be solved by one side alone
There is growing concern on both sides that the hostility between the principals is causing long term harm by amplifying even relatively minor disagreements and undermining practical problem-solving.
With an excellent grasp of each other’s languages, and what looked like genuine chemistry in their earlier encounters, there was hope that the Johnson-Macron relationship might provide a platform for healthy rivalry and constructive partnership. So far, it has not.
There are certainly things that can be done to improve relations, but it needs to start at the top.
Firstly, the Prime Minister needs to make the bilateral relationship a visible priority. There should have been an Anglo-French Summit this year. The fact it never happened was a missed opportunity that shouldn’t be repeated in 2022.
Second, the current government must not give up on past achievements. The Prime Minister’s break with the Cameron and May eras is deliberate but that should not mean ignoring the progress made in forging a modern and pragmatic Anglo-French partnership under their leadership.
The 2010 Lancaster House military treaties remain the cornerstone of this partnership. Theresa May developed it further with the Sandhurst Treaty on border management. But these agreements need a refresh in light of recent events. Boris Johnson should also seek to strike his own treaty with whoever wins the French election next April.
Aside from grand statements of intent, there also needs to be a continuous search for opportunities to build trust and understanding. The recent participation in a major French-led naval exercise was a good example, with one senior Royal Navy officer praising the “inextricable ties between the UK and the French.”
The bilateral relationship works best when there are two big beasts commanding the stage - leaders who can capture their respective national moods and articulate their different interests, while also providing a bridge on the important issues and at crucial moments.
We remember the 1980s as a time of heated rows with Europe, often with Anglo-French relations at the epicentre. Yet, for all that, Margaret Thatcher and President Mitterand had an understanding and made their relationship work.
When Argentina invaded the Falklands, in contrast with the hesitancy of the Americans, France was quick to declare support for Britain. Mitterand followed through with practical help over the radar guidance codes for the Exocet missiles used by Argentina. France was there when it counted.
None of the disagreements over the last year on migration, fishing rights, Covid restrictions or anything else, can be solved by one side alone. There really is no alternative but to sit down together and make the relationship work.
The rows won’t go away (we’re talking about Britain and France after all) but managing these within a framework of trust, civility and predictability is the essence of good diplomatic relations.
Through carelessness and neglect, that relationship is looking tarnished right now. Fixing it isn’t just in our own interests. Europe and the world need France and the UK to become closer partners, not drift farther apart.
Whoever wins the next election – Emmanuel Macron or Valérie Pécresse – a reset in our relationship with France can’t come soon enough.
Stephen Crabb MP is the Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire and chair of the APPG for France.
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