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A constructive post-Brexit relationship beckons for Britain and France

4 min read

Today marks the 120th Anniversary of the Entente Cordiale, a landmark moment that settled various territorial disputes and smoothed the path towards much closer diplomatic cooperation between Britain and France.

It reflected a pragmatic understanding that, whatever the many differences in interests and outlook, the fundamentals of geography and economics point to future cooperation rather than conflict on the part of these two old adversaries. The Entente Cordiale helped to underpin Britain's alliance with France through two world wars and beyond, and the phrase has become short-hand for the bilateral relationship (when things are going well at least).

The Entente did not of course reduce the complexity and highly competitive nature of some our overlapping interests, and business-as-usual often involves some element of tension or disagreement. There have been periods when the leaders of our two nations seemed to embody this perfectly: the complex but fruitful relationship between Churchill and De Gaulle during and after World War 2, and the tetchy but pragmatic relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand. Here, as in so much of the world of diplomacy, personalities matter.

What makes the 120th anniversary celebration so important is that comes after something of a nadir in the relationship. Even the most enthusiastic optimist would struggle to view the first years of the post-Brexit Franco-British relationship as anything other than frosty and difficult. At least we didn't return to actual fighting, despite the cries to send in the Royal Navy in May 2021 over a row about fishing rights near Jersey. 

The real low point came in September that year with the announcement of the AUKUS security partnership which, among other things, cut France out of a deal to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. French ministers and diplomats felt blind-sided and that their nation's strategic interest in the Indo-Pacific was being sidelined. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's reaction of “prenez un grip about this and donnez-moi un break” hardly helped the mood. 

Coming in the wake of rows about fishing-rights, vaccines, energy, and migration, there was growing concern in diplomatic and security circles about this state of affairs and the need for a reset in the relationship. As it turned out, events of the last eighteen months provided some key opportunities which diplomats on both sides were quick to seize on in an effort to warm up the Entente. 

The passing of Queen Elizabeth II elicited a remarkable outpouring of tributes and love from across the Channel with President Macron poignantly describing the Queen's significance to France: ‘To you, she was your Queen. To us, she was The Queen. She will be with all of us forever’. Diplomats ensured that the social media clip was circulated widely among political and government contacts here. 

The change of personnel in 10 Downing Street meant the page could be properly turned, and the reset project went into full swing. Rishi Sunak's participation, along with a raft of his Ministers, in an Anglo-French Summit held in Paris in March 2023, the first in five years, signalled that the two governments were determined to get back to a more constructive relationship. Collectively, No.10 and the Elysée published a Joint Leaders Declaration to round off the Summit highlighting the desire to pursue a shared vision for the bilateral future along the lines of defence, security, foreign policy, energy, migration, as well as social and economic ties. 

The ongoing difficulties of small boat crossings from northern France mean that this is not quite 'Le Bromance' moment that some journalists suggested when the two leaders hugged at the Summit. But both the mood and the substance of discussions have changed markedly. Ministers, especially for Defence, Energy and Trade, have been back and forward to Paris regularly to build on the work.

The state visit by HM King Charles to France last autumn was another milestone moment, with an extraordinary joint sitting of Deputes and Senators giving the King a standing ovation following his powerful speech of togetherness and continued cooperation: ‘together, our potential is limitless’. The Entente Cordiale was well and truly revitalised.

2024 marks two other anniversaries in the Franco-British partnership: the 80th Anniversary of the Normandy Landings and the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Both governments will be looking to use these celebrations as further opportunities for showcasing the importance of the alliance, as well as the Olympic Games in Paris.

Diplomats on both sides of the Channel will feel confident that, whatever the political changes coming from elections in the UK later this year, the basic parameters of a new constructive post-Brexit bilateral relationship have been set. A large part of this is mood music of course, and there will be a great many gritty discussions to come over migration, border controls, AUKUS, fish, and lots more besides. But, 120 years on, there is a lot of life left in the Entente Cordiale.

Rt Hon Stephen Crabb MP is Chair of the APPG for France 

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