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14 Mar 2023

Richard Whitman suggests that the first Anglo-French summit since 2018 signalled a move towards greater normalisation in the bilateral foreign, security and defence policy relationship between London and Paris, but that more generally the relationship may less significant than it once was.

After a five year hiatus, the Anglo-French summit held in Paris on 10 March marked a degree of normalisation in the cross Channel relationship. Largely favourable French and UK media coverage included the declaration of ‘Le Bromance’ between Macron and Sunak. The French daily Libération went so far as to mock up a royal-wedding style commemorative mug showing Macron and Sunak inside a heart on its front page. Through social media and at their joint press conference both leaders were keen to convey a new amity in Franco-British relations.

Diplomats and officials in London and Paris have laboured hard so that the summit could convey a strong sense of a rediscovery of the Entente Cordiale. It would, however, be more accurate to describe the Anglo-French relationship as, at best, moving towards an entente pragmatique on security and defence.

Since the last Franco-British summit held at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in January 2018, the relationship between the Élysée Palace and 10 Downing Street has been marked by a spectacular diplomatic sulk engendered by the dysfunctional relationship between  Boris Johnson and President Macron during their overlapping periods of office.

While direct military-to-military relationships have remained cordial, underpinned by the obligations under the 2010 Lancaster House treaties, a series of spats over Brexit-related issues (such as fisheries) and episodes such at the announcement of the AUKUS Australia-UK-US security partnership, led to a deeply troubled bilateral diplomatic and government-to-government relationship.

Reproachment at the Élysée

The change of Prime Minister from Johnson to Sunak (briefly preceded by a lightening of the Anglo-French mood under Truss) has provided a step change in the possibilities for Britain’s European diplomacy. Following the carefully choregraphed agreement with the EU on the Windsor Framework the previous week, Prime Minister Sunak’s team further demonstrated their capacity to manage public diplomacy to great effect in Paris.

As with the details of the Windsor Framework, the Anglo-French summit announcement of a concordat to heighten cooperation on managing small boat crossings was somewhat more expansive than had been anticipated. But as the summit Declaration made clear, the issue was one that could not be fully addressed without an EU-UK agreement on migration.

Cross-channel migration has a high degree of political saliency in the UK but the expansive contents of the Joint Leaders’ Declaration post-summit was a reminder that there are many other issues of shared preoccupation. Foreign policy and security challenges, including Russia’s war on Ukraine (and the consequential issues such as energy security), occupied the bulk of the summit communique.

The lengthy ‘foreign and global issues’ section of the Declaration provided an extensive joint encyclical on how the tackle international issues. The Declaration’s wording on cooperation on the Indo Pacific suggests that both sides are keen to move beyond the diplomatic spat over AUKUS and the messaging signals an intent for collaboration rather than friction.

The European Political Community, President Macron’s project of grand European institutional engineering, gains more attention in the Declaration than might be justified by such a nascent creation. It is too early to say whether it might be a useful arrangement for enhancing Anglo-French connectivity but it was notable that there was no reference to energising joint cooperation between France, Germany and the UK (the E3 format) as a vehicle for dialogue on security and defence matters.

On bilateral security and defence cooperation, the Declaration signals that this was less of a landmark summit than an exercise in continued alignment with the ambitions of the Lancaster House agreements. The Declaration represents a reaffirmation of the importance of existing commitments and a modest increase in collaboration.

A relationship of diminishing significance?

Russia’s war on Ukraine has, however, dramatically altered the security order in Europe. The Declaration stressed a shared perspective, with France and the UK now much more aligned on the response to Russia’s war than was the case a year ago.

The UK has so far been a more heavily invested supporter of Ukraine’s military through the provision of equipment and training. The Declaration signals that France will join the UK in its previously announced plan to expand is training programme to include Ukraine’s marine forces.

Yet gaps in approach remain. Since February 2022 the UK has deepened what were already increasingly close ties to Poland and Ukraine, who are on the front line of countering Russia’s actions. None of the UK’s major military and diplomatic initiatives in support of Ukraine have been conducted with France and, further, the UK has found its like-minded partners have not included Paris and as indicated by Britain’s co-signatories of the Tallinn Pledge.

Against this backdrop it can be argued that, with the hiatus in major Franco-British initiatives on security and defence over the past five years, the Paris-London relationship is not as logically compelling as was the case prior to Brexit. For example, the relationships the UK built with 10 states via the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) in creating military interoperability in the Baltic looks to be of greater utility than the joint Anglo-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) which has yet to be deployed operationally.

Anglo-French defence industrial collaboration remains modest (but important on missiles) and in key areas such as the development of future combat aircraft systems the two states have formed very different consortiums (the UK’s Tempest partnership with Japan and Italy; France’s Future Combat Air System consortium with Germany and Spain).

That the summit took place at all was a major foreign policy outcome for London and Paris, re-introducing a degree of normality to Anglo-French relations. However, this summit was more a meeting of minds than a landmark. As key players in Europe’s diplomacy and defence both sides will need to work harder if they wish to forge an Entente Cordiale to make a greater joint contribution to European security.

By Professor Richard G. Whitman, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe. 

Sign up via the UK in a Changing Europe website here for a UKICE Lunch Hour online panel on the Franco-British summit.


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