French-UK relations were often in the “deep freeze” during the prime ministerships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, yet this Friday (March 10) will see the first bilateral summit between London and Paris for five years. Theresa May was the last UK prime minister that French President Emmanuel Macron met for such a summit, yet even then there was little personal rapport between the two leaders. Predictably, this did little to break the substantive impasse in the UK’s then-EU exit negotiations in 2018.
However, it appears that the latest resident of 10 Downing Street, Rishi Sunak, does have significantly warmer ties with Macron. Both assumed their nation’s highest public office at a very early age, having had prior jobs as finance ministers, and before that having earned fortunes in the financial services industry. So Sunak hopes, in this relatively auspicious context, that he can forge a much better relationship with the still-young French president, creating a new era of “entente cordiale.” This may be furthered by the state visit of King Charles to France later this month.
The omens for an upturn in ties also appear particularly bright after the agreement over the Northern Ireland protocol last Monday between London, Brussels and the EU 27. If signed off by legislators, this would remove a huge block to UK relations with Europe. Specific issues that will be on the agenda at Friday’s summit include deepening bilateral cooperation in areas such as climate and energy, the economy, migration and wider shared foreign policy and security goals such as Ukraine. There is potential upside in many of these issues for a stronger relationship.
Positive as this all is, however, bilateral ties remain challenging in numerous areas in the post-Brexit era. During those long Brexit divorce negotiations, France had perhaps the most hardline stance on the UK’s exit from the EU. This reflected the complex, contradictory relationship that Paris has long had with London in the context of EU affairs. The ardently pro-Brussels Macron, who believes Brexit to be an act of political vandalism to the continent, was frequently accused by UK ministers of holding up progress in negotiations.
Macron’s Brexit positioning, including his robust stance on precluding future UK access to the single market, was reinforced by broader French plans to pitch Paris as a competing financial center to London. That began in earnest under the presidency of Francois Hollande which saw former Finance Minister Michel Sapin and Hollande’s Brexit Special Envoy Christian Noyer, former Bank of France governor, begin openly promoting Paris with key financial firms after the June 2016 referendum.
This has continued under Macron as he hailed the decision to relocate the European Banking Agency to Paris from London as “recognition of France’s attractiveness and European commitment.” French officials still hope that the EBA’s relocation will help to bring many thousands more UK banking jobs to the French capital, which is competing post-Brexit with other financial centers, including Frankfurt, for such employment.
Macron also said that he might seek, post-Brexit, to renegotiate the 2003 Les Touquet migration agreement. This allows the UK to operate border controls in France and has kept thousands of migrants – heading for Britain – on the French side of the channel. What France’s position on Brexit underlines is how each EU state has distinctive political, economic and social interests that informs their stance on the UK’s exit. Thus, while the EU 27 were in general remarkably unified in their negotiations with London, the positions of the individual countries did vary according to factors such as trade and wider economic ties and patterns of migration with the UK, domestic election pressures, and levels of euroskeptic support within their populaces.
The divergent, and complex positions of EU states thus range from the UK’s fellow non-eurozone member, Sweden, whose political and economic interests are broadly aligned with UK positions, to countries that have more complicated postures, including France. While the position of Paris has now moderated, especially in the wake of the new Irish protocol deal, the two nations remain misaligned in several key areas, including fishing rights and migration across the Channel in small boats. This lack of alignment in certain areas will not be helped by the fact that neither leader is in a particularly strong domestic political position. Sunak’s government is not popularly elected, while Macron’s party lacks an absolute majority in the French legislature.
Taken together, this underlines the likely limits to trying to reconfigure bilateral relations in the short term. While the diplomatic “mood music” is upbeat between the two young leaders, the distinctive post-Brexit interests of each state will make renewing relations complex and challenging.