François-Joseph Schichan analyses Labour leader Keir Starmer’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, highlighting the reasons for the visit from a French perspective.
Keir Starmer’s visit to France and meeting with Macron has implications not just for the Labour Party and its leader, but also for the future of EU-UK and UK-France relations as well.
In the run-up to an election, being seen interacting with world leaders is an important element for a leader of a major political party seeking legitimacy and credibility. The meeting between Keir Starmer and Emmanuel Macron is such a moment. The meeting concludes an intense international week for Starmer, who met last week with Interpol on the immigration issue, before flying to Canada at the weekend for a gathering of centre-left leaders – including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This international recognition differentiates Starmer from his predecessor – who very rarely met with world leaders abroad.
But Starmer’s meeting with Macron is different from the others. France is the UK’s largest neighbour, and the French President is a key actor in the EU. Engaging with a major European leader will contribute to cement Starmer’s legitimacy as a possible Prime Minister in waiting.
But Starmer is not going to France just to boost his credentials at home. Throughout the Brexit process, France has been leading a tougher approach towards the UK. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, said ties with Europe are a top priority for Labour. If Starmer is to achieve anything meaningful on this front once in power, he needs to build a close relationship with the EU’s key leaders at the earliest opportunity.
Why is Macron engaging with Labour at this stage? A French President or Prime Minister meeting with the leader of the opposition in the UK is not surprising and has happened before on different occasions. For President Macron, it’s a balancing exercise: the relationship with Rishi Sunak has clearly improved, but an election is coming in the UK.
Overall, the French President will have thought that we are sufficiently far away from the election for the meeting not to be seen as meddling in UK domestic politics. Besides, the President is keen to be seen with other progressive political leaders, which are becoming a rare commodity at a time when right-wing and far-right political parties are on the rise across Europe – with Britain being the notable exception.
There is also an ideological proximity between Macron’s party and the current Labour Party: Macron won by campaigning in the centre, and by uniting the centre-left and the centre-right – a very similar approach to Tony Blair’s strategy, which is a major source of inspiration for the current Labour leadership. Macron is also close to Blair – the two meet regularly and Macron delivered an address to his Future of Britain conference in July by video link.
A key element of how the French government will approach a potential Labour government will be its stance on the EU. Arguably, the current Conservative government has made significant efforts and achieved progress to stabilise the relationship with the EU and with France in particular.
Earlier this year, it has concluded negotiations on Northern Ireland which unlocked several agreements with the EU – notably on financial services cooperation and on innovation and research with the UK joining the Horizon programme this month. Rishi Sunak held a bilateral summit with Emmanuel Macron earlier this year and they agreed to additional measures to tackle the illegal crossings of the Channel.
So what more can the Labour Party do? The review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in 2025 will provide an opportunity, but offers limited scope for change. The party is likely to be more ambitious outside of the TCA, notably through a new ‘security pact’ suggested by David Lammy, to increase defence cooperation and put in place a structure for a regular dialogue on these issues.
France will be receptive to these ideas as it has always regarded the UK as a key actor for Europe’s security. Historically, the Franco-British relationship made progress under both Labour and Conservative governments. Sarkozy and Brown were close partners in dealing with the financial crisis in 2008. The Lancaster House treaties which provide the framework of the bilateral cooperation on defence and security were agreed with David Cameron’s government. But it is worth stressing that the French approach towards the UK will not change just because there is a new government in London. The relationship will remain transactional.
The international context will drive a lot of the dynamic of the Franco-British relationship. The return of Trump or of a Trump-like candidate in the White House in 2024 would certainly push a Labour government closer to the EU and to Europe’s progressive governments, including France. Common threats like China and Russia will bring the two countries closer as they are natural partners in Europe to face these challenges.
For all these reasons, Keir Starmer’s meeting with President Macron is an important moment for the Labour leader and for his approach to the EU. But a lot of work still needs to be done to flesh out what Labour wants from the EU and from France. European leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, are certainly starting to listen carefully.
By François-Joseph Schichan, Director, Flint Global, and former Head of the Political Department at the French Embassy in London.