The leaders of Britain and France shook hands and briefly posed for photographers, smiling, on Friday morning, as Rishi Sunak arrived at the presidential palace in Paris for a meeting with Emmanuel Macron.
It’s a sign of how badly eroded relations have been between Britain and France that Friday’s summit is the first since 2018. Previously, they were held every two years.
Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak will try to repair some of that damage and show a “new chapter” is opening in relations between the neighbouring nations, according to Macron’s office.
Relations between London and Paris chilled amid post-Brexit wrangling over fishing rights and other issues and hit rock bottom under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took delight in needling the French.
Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, ruffled French feathers just last year when she said the “jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or a foe.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought Britain and its European neighbours closer together in support of Kyiv, and the mood improved after pragmatic, technocratic Sunak took office in October after Truss’ brief and economically destabilising term.
Sunak’s visit also comes two weeks before King Charles III travels to France and then Germany for his first state visits since becoming monarch, in further British efforts to build bridges with European neighbours.
”The summit will be above all an opportunity to reaffirm and deepen the close cooperation in terms of military support for Ukraine,” according to the statement from the Elysee Palace, as both countries are the only nuclear powers in the region.
A delegation of seven senior ministers from each country will take part, including those responsible for foreign affairs, defence and domestic issues.
Closer cooperation to tackle migrant crossings
Last month the UK and the EU announced a breakthrough in talks to resolve the dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. Britain also has cautiously welcomed Macron’s proposal for a European Political Community, a new forum aimed at boosting security and prosperity across the continent. Launched in October, it brings together existing EU members, aspiring partners in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as Britain and Turkey.
Sunak seeks closer cooperation on measures to stop thousands of migrants crossing the Channel from France to England.
The UK and France signed an agreement in November to increase police patrols on beaches in northern France — with London agreeing to pay Paris €72.2 million in 2022-2023 — and Sunak hopes to cement further cooperation on Friday to tackle illegal immigration.
Friday’s talks will aim at “making the small boat route across the Channel unviable, save lives and dismantle organised crime groups while preventing illegal migration further upstream,” according to Sunak’s office.
The UK announced contentious plans this week to detain and deport people arriving by small boat, but almost no country has agreed to accept any deportees.
Soon after the meeting in Paris, however, will come a reminder of an issue that angered France.
Sunak will fly to the United States for a meeting with President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese over a three-way defence deal struck in 2021 that saw Australia back out of an agreement to buy French submarines.