Sunak and Macron must navigate boat issues to reset Anglo-French relations

Channel crossings and Aukus pact will be central to talks that could also improve Britain’s standing with the EU

The attempt by Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron to reset the Anglo-French relationship on Friday is not just important bilaterally, but also in terms of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

The French president, a gatekeeper to improved relations, sees the British prime minister’s efforts to resolve the Northern Ireland trade issues as a signal Britain is in the hands of a fellow technocratic nationalist, and that its brush with populism may be over.

French diplomats were in despair over Boris Johnson’s willingness to use France as a prop to bolster his domestic standing, saying it corroded the trust that is at the heart of effective diplomacy. The low point probably came in November 2021 with Johnson’s release on Twitter of a letter to Macron after 27 people died trying to cross the Channel. The then prime minister in effect blamed the crisis on France and proposed it should commit to taking back all asylum seekers who made it to Britain, a suggestion the French government had already rejected multiple times. The letter led to the withdrawal of an invitation to the then home secretary, Priti Patel, to a summit on the refugee crisis.

There had been similar fury two months earlier when Johnson told Macron to “donnez-moi un break” and get over his anger with the Aukus military pact signed between the UK, US and Australia in the Indo-Pacific. Johnson suggested Macron “prenez un grip” over the surprise Anglosphere pact to design and build nuclear-powered submarines for Australia, which required Canberra to dump a contract to buy diesel-powered subs from the French.

By contrast Joe Biden, belatedly aware that the announcement of the pact had been terribly handled, took Macron’s sense of betrayal seriously. He met the French president in Rome a month later, signed a strategic interoperability agreement in December 2021 and a year later granted Macron a state visit to the White House.

A test of Friday’s summit will be the ability of the two leaders to navigate these boat issues – the inflatable rafts coming across the Channel and the multibillion-pound nuclear submarines that Australia, the US and the UK intend to build to patrol in the Indo-Pacific.

The small boats, a symbol of the wider migration crisis, have a short-term political urgency for Sunak, who will be seeking election in 2024. The replacement submarines, to counter the growing threat from China, are not due to be seaworthy until the 2040s.

The difficulty in terms of small boats is that the sides only in November reached a laboriously negotiated settlement in which the UK provided €72.2m (£64m) in return for a 40% increase in patrols and more intelligence sharing. The only probable big advance at the summit will be that Britain’s ad hoc funding of French patrols will become multiyear funding, making it easier for the French to plan extra patrols.

Each side would like the other to do more. Conservative MPs want France to arrest those caught trying to cross the Channel and for the British police to patrol on French beaches alongside the gendarmerie. France for its part would like the British to introduce ID cards and take more refugees. Neither side is going to relent. But it was noticeable that Sunak in making his latest announcements this week steered clear of blaming the French for the increase in the number of boats, saying no single lever would solve the problem.

The EU’s statement on Wednesday that it does not believe the new British policy of rejecting any person if they arrive illegally by boat conforms with international law carries dangers. It risks Macron being cast in the role of accomplice of British lawbreaking if he endorses the UK’s plan. How he handles this will be a test of how eager the French president is to improve relations.

The other test will be Aukus. Biden took the precaution of ringing Macron this week to brief him on details of where and how nuclear-powered submarines will be built, something he will announce on Monday in San Diego alongside Sunak and the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese. The event will be a bitter moment for Macron.

Aukus involved Biden, as well as Canberra and London going behind Macron’s back to kill off Australia’s previous $66bn contract signed in 2016 to buy French subs. It was not just the deception of an ally, it was a blow to the centrepiece of French policy in the Indo-Pacific. Not even the €555m compensation given to the French naval group or visits by Albanese to Paris can heal the wounds.

The risk is that the exclusion of France sharpens its instinct to approach China differently to the US and UK. In September, Macron told his diplomats about France’s distinctive position about the coming power struggle between China and the US. France was not equidistant between these superpowers, he argued, but at the same time did not have a confrontational mindset.

Britain could play a role in binding France closer to US thinking on China. There has even been talk of Fraukus, the idea that France may join in the advanced technology sharing that is an essential part of Aukus.

Another path for the UK to influence French thinking is to deepen defence cooperation with France and by extension Europe.

The former national security adviser Peter Ricketts has suggested the UK and the EU could start that process by meeting regularly to discuss supply chain issues over China, foreign direct investment screening or export controls of advanced technologies.

Britain’s integrated defence and foreign policy review in March 2021 had very little to say about British coordination with the EU on security issues. Structured defence cooperation with Europe may be a step too far for Sunak, but a revised post-Ukraine version is due to be published on Monday as the prime minister meets Biden. Ironically there is no politician more eager to see British European cooperation on defence than the American president.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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