Gesine Weber reflects on last week’s summit between the UK and France, suggesting that improved Franco-British relations could open the door to closer cooperation with Europe.
On Friday 10 March, French President Macron hosted British Prime Minister Sunak for the first Franco-British summit in five years, and the first since the UK left the EU.
The summit reflects an important reset in bilateral relations after a rocky few years. Though there were no truly transformative agreements, the level of ambition lays important groundwork for the future of the relationship. Working more closely with France is also a chance for improved British cooperation with Europe – both via the EU and beyond it – if London is willing seize the opportunity.
A good moment to strengthen bilateral relations
The summit was a high political priority on both sides of the Channel, with governments in Paris and London both stressing a clear willingness to improve the relationship.
While coordination on the working level had, particularly on strategic challenges, continued during Brexit, the looming challenges of defining the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU had overshadowed bilateral relations. In particular, Boris Johnson’s rhetoric towards the EU and France (one might recall Johnson’s “donnez-moi un break” after the conclusion of the AUKUS deal) or Liz Truss publicly questioning whether France was a “friend or foe” were not helpful in this regard.
In contrast, Sunak has, since taking office, made a significant effort to mend the relationship with France at the highest political level. The good personal links between Macron and Sunak – some refer to it as a ‘bromance’ – have definitely helped set the scene for constructive cooperation. Furthermore, the agreement on the Windsor Framework, revising the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, right before the summit in early March, has removed one critical looming challenge of Brexit.
Against this backdrop, the summit was much more about symbolism than about substance. The Joint Statement by Sunak and Macron clearly demonstrates Franco-British unity on key challenges, most importantly on Russia’s war on Ukraine. However, the concrete actions outlined in the statement are not groundbreaking: initiatives like the better coordination of equipment for Ukraine or joint training for Ukrainian Marines, cooperation on energy, and enhancing people-to-people exchange are undoubtedly helpful, but rather pragmatic starting points for doing more together than milestones.
And particularly on migration, the compromise looks rather like a temporary solution. A highly political issue in the UK, dealing with the ‘small boats’ in the Channel had been top of the agenda. As a result, the UK will now pay £500 million to France for new officers and detention centres in order to curb the number of arrivals to the UK. However, the structural challenges – for example, in terms of providing legal routes for asylum seekers to the UK – still remain to be addressed. Consequently, this summit mattered as a show of ambition, but future summits will reveal whether London and Paris are able to deliver.
The road back to Europe runs through Paris
While the summit was bilateral in its nature – Macron is not the EU’s spokesperson – its results also have wider implications for the UK’s engagement with the bloc. Getting the relationship with France right is essential for working on cross-channel relations after Brexit.
France is not only one of the UK’s closest partners in Europe, but also a political heavyweight in the EU; in recent years, no other country has so significantly left its marks on European institutions and policies, be it on European defence, the Covid recovery fund and common debts, or the EU’s reaction to the US Inflation Reduction Act.
While France, as all EU member states, had displayed a firm stance vis-à-vis the UK during the negotiations of the Trade and Cooperation agreement, insisting on EU unity, there is now a growing willingness in Paris to advance bilaterally on issues like energy. This pragmatic approach, often called a ‘compartementalisation’ of the relationship, allows the UK and France to deepen cooperation in fields where it is possible regardless of challenges on the European level or in other policy areas.
Productive cooperation with Paris could also help build bridges to Brussels, particularly in the field of security and defence, provided there is the political willingness in London.
The agreement on the Windsor Framework, and hence the resolution of one of the major challenges of Brexit, could open a real window of opportunity to advance EU-UK cooperation in areas that have become particularly relevant with Russia’s war on Ukraine, such as energy cooperation or supply chains. The fact that the UK joined a military mobility project of the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) shows that both sides have, in light of the geopolitical shock, realised that the politics of Brexit needs to be left behind.
More flexible European cooperation as a promising approach
At the same time, the results of the summit also show the potential to rethink the UK’s engagement with Europe in new formats, beyond the EU.
The UK’s resolute and quick action on Russia’s war on Ukraine has reaffirmed its commitment to European security, and the summit’s commitments to new joint support for Ukrainian forces showed that there is more to be done on this front. It is also a positive sign that the UK and France expressed their support for the European Air Defence conference in June reaffirming the UK’s role as a leading ally in European defence.
Most importantly, it is noteworthy that an entire paragraph in the leaders’ declaration is dedicated to the European Political Community (EPC). Launched by France as a reaction to Russia’s war on Ukraine, the format brings together 44 European countries to work together on issues like security, energy, or ‘political’ questions, without a formal institutional structure. Though a brainchild of France, the UK has shown some enthusiasm for the EPC, and will even host a summit in 2024.
Undoubtedly, the EPC is Europe as a post-Brexit UK likes it – namely Europe à la carte – where the UK can pick and choose its points of engagement, in a relatively informal manner. Yet here again, French and British interests converge, as Paris has always been open to building coalitions of the willing in European security and defence. A productive bilateral relationship between France and the UK could hence potentially also have positive spillovers on co-leadership on key challenges within the EPC ahead of 2024, provided there remains political will and a healthy dose of pragmatism on both sides of the Channel.
By Gesine Weber, PhD candidate, King’s College London.