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Amelia Hadfield introduces a new policy brief by the Centre for Britain and Europe, considering the state of Franco-British relations and what issues will be up for discussion at their bilateral summit on 10 March.

The much-anticipated Franco-British summit takes place on Friday 10 March in Paris. With French President Emmanuel Macron hosting UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, this is the first such summit between the two sides since 2018 and presents a vital opportunity for the two leaders to discuss – and forge agreements – on key issues.

A new policy brief by the Centre for Britain and Europe policy provides both the state-of-play following the deluge of changes in the Franco-British relationship since the last big summit, and a primer on the key issues dominating the summit agenda itself.

The summit is both a ‘sign of thawing relations between Britain and key EU partners’ and an opportunity for a much-needed bilateral reset in several areas. These fall into two broad categories.

First, those issues like cross-Channel migration and defence which relate largely to the UK’s bilateral relations with France. Second, those including energy security, regional security (including the war in Ukraine) and foreign policy that relate more broadly to the UK’s relationship with Europe and the EU.

While these are all highly pressing issues, they also represent multidimensional policies where one side’s approach materially impacts on how the other can respond, which in turn increases the overall scope for cooperation.

Indeed, the multi-level nature of the agenda provides a helpful opportunity for Sunk and Macron to make real strides in establishing a new strategic ecosystem (or possibly rebooting the old one) between the two countries which in turn can apply to their wider relations with Europe. While the summit brings together the UK and France, these issues touch on both bilateral, and European policy frameworks.

The discussions are also a sign of, and will be facilitated by, important changes in the wider political climate.

A tumultuous five years has passed since the last UK-France summit in 2018. During that time, the travails of the Brexit divorce proceedings have complicated and arguably worsened Britain’s relationship with the EU as a whole, and with key EU member states in particular. Britain’s relations with France have remained tense in key areas, with antagonism producing deeply entrenched positions on migration, and limited cooperation on other areas such as security, the post-Covid recovery, climate change, and energy shocks.

Timing, however, is everything. The recent Windsor Framework, which represents a significant deal between Sunak and the EU to settle the dysfunctional relations around the Northern Ireland Protocol, so far appears successful. Having established a compromise on the most challenging of issues through the use of ‘old-fashioned diplomacy’, the Windsor Framework has established a much-needed tone of trust and compromise between the UK and the EU, including President Macron, who has been among ‘the most hard-line of EU leaders on how the British should be treated’.

While not all parties have yet given their blessing to the framework (including the Democratic Unionist Party representing unionist voters in Northern Ireland), the end of the UK’s Brexit purgatory could at last be in sight.

And while summits are often an opportunity for extensive pageantry and little commitment – long on flag-waving and short on binding provisions – both sides appear to be taking the 10 March bilateral seriously.

Both sides will want to undertake three goals. First, to outline the specific visions that each country has established for itself, and its role in the world (the UK’s upcoming second edition of its Integrated Review, and France’s recent Revue Nationale Stratégique). Second, to clarify both the limits and ambitions of their bilateral security and defence cooperation, arising from agreements in the original 2010 Lancaster House Treaties. Third, to discuss their respective leadership roles within Europe, key international fora, and regarding the next stages of the war against Ukraine.

Crucially, both sides need to find themes with which they readily identify and demarcate areas unique to them alone. Defence and security will be a focal point, as will be migration, energy, and leadership in international fora.

For a consideration of the state of play in each of these areas, and what is up for discussion at the summit, read the full policy brief here.

By Amelia Hadfield, Professor in European and International Affairs, University of Surrey. 

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