This article is more than

1 year old

Channel migrants: Rishi Sunak to meet Emmanuel Macron

Author: Editors Desk Source: BBC News:
March 9, 2023 at 08:56
REUTERS / France has been gripped by protests against Macron's plan to raise the retirement age to 64
REUTERS / France has been gripped by protests against Macron's plan to raise the retirement age to 64

Paris is world famous for romance. But what about bromance (or romance fraternelle, as the UK's French cousins might say)?

Macron and Sunak
The French president and UK prime minister have much to discuss at Friday's summit

An explosion of mutual admiration is predicted in the French capital this Friday when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets President Emmanuel Macron.

But is bromance exaggerated? Perhaps a bit glib?

After seven years of pretty appalling Franco-British relations following the UK's Brexit vote, and with conventional warfare back and raging in Europe as Russia continues its bloody assault on Ukraine, there is a voracious appetite on both sides of the Channel for new beginnings and constructive co-operation.

And there are remarkable similarities between the French and British leaders.

Former investment bankers and finance ministers, who attended elite schools, they are both ideologically from the centre-right. They were young when they took the reins of power: Mr Sunak is 42, while Mr Macron became the youngest president in French history at 39.

Rather diminutive in stature, the two men are hugely ambitious. Part of their "let's get down to business" image is a liking for signature, sharply tailored, slim-cut navy suits. France's Le Monde newspaper noted, in a flourish of sartorial snobbery, that Mr Sunak's seemed "too tight".

But there are other similarities the two men probably prefer not to boast about.

French protesters hold up a sign of Macron reading 'Danger to the public'
France has been gripped by protests against Macron's plan to raise the retirement age to 64

Neither of them has a convincing popular mandate. Mr Sunak became prime minister after his predecessor's resignation. Mr Macron's Renaissance party runs a minority government after punishing parliamentary elections.

The two leaders are beset by public sector strikes: over pay in the UK and pensions in France. Critics accuse them of arrogance at times and of seeming distant from the concerns of most voters. Mr Sunak, because of his personal wealth; the French president, for his grand manner. He's mockingly dubbed "Jupiter" at home, implying he sees himself as godlike, and also "president of the rich" because of some of his policies.

Of course, Mr Sunak voted for Brexit, while Mr Macron once touted himself as Mr Europe. They are by no means two peas in a pod. But in a post-Brexit and post-pandemic world challenged by Russia and China, they share an apparent conviction that political pragmatism, rather than dogmatic ideology, is the order of the day.

London and Paris have billed Friday's summit as ambitious - covering immigration, the environment, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Iran's nuclear programme, civil nuclear co-operation, bilateral trade, youth opportunities, how to handle China and more.

But what can actually be achieved in such a short meeting? Is this more symbolism than content?

Rishi Sunak looking sadly at a lectern
Rishi Sunak is trying to tackle the problem of people crossing the Channel from France in small boats

Mr Macron has a defence and security message uppermost in his mind. Mr Sunak has a big focus on migration, as I discuss below. But as the UK's ambassador to France Menna Rawlings pointed out in a French media interview, what was important was actually getting the two sides together at this high level after five years.

Meetings like this between the UK and France used to happen pretty much annually. Covid has been a factor in the summit-freeze, of course, but it was the Brexit process that really opened a chasm of bad-tempered bitterness between these two countries with their long history of frenemy-ship.

Now though, the enormity of the geopolitical crisis over Russia and Ukraine and the impact it's having on wider continental security and on energy prices has helped focus minds and calm relations, reminding both sides of the values they share.

French political commentator Pierre Haski predicts Mr Macron will use the summit on Friday to showcase France and the UK as big military powers, standing side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder.

They are Europe's only significant military players (Germany's pledge to become one will take a very long time to realise). Both countries have a seat on the UN security council. Both are nuclear powers - testing their warheads at the same facility in France - and they've worked very closely together inside Nato since the start of Russia's invasion.

Nato troops on exercise in North Macedonia
The UK and France are close military allies and Nato members

Mr Haski notes that Mr Macron, a long-time champion of boosting European defence (not necessarily an "EU army"), with individual countries investing more in security, has seen his dream finally taking shape - and yet it's been the US, not France, leading the way in the face of Moscow's aggression.

"He needs to be seen to be playing the Nato game," says Mr Haski.

Meanwhile Mr Sunak will arrive in Paris this Friday with migration very much on his mind.

He's made stemming the arrival of migrants to the UK one of five pledges against which he says he should be judged by voters come next year's general election.

But tough words at home and a cosier relationship with Paris won't stop the people-smugglers' boats trying to cross the Channel. And this is an issue where expectations of the summit should probably be limited.

Numbers have been steadily on the rise - 46,000 people crossed those waters in small boats last year alone - grabbing UK headlines, causing tragic loss of life and leading over time to much finger pointing between Britain and France.

RNLI boat
France and the UK have cooperated in recent years on the Channel migrant crisis, but people keep making the journey

The UK says Paris hasn't been doing enough to stop the dinghies leaving along France's coastline, despite increasing UK financial support. France rejects the accusation, saying it prevented over 30,000 people making the crossing last year. The French government receives an estimated three times as many asylum claims as the UK annually. It insists, when it comes to small boats across the Channel, it's suffering the effects of the UK's asylum policy - something the UK government strongly contests.

"Migration is not only an issue for the UK," an Elysée official said again pointedly this week. "We need to accept a broader focus. It is not Britain versus the continent, or Britain versus France. It is very much a global issue."

Both sides have already spoken of their ambitious co-operation agreements to crackdown on people smuggling gangs. They openly admit it's a shared problem. But what Mr Sunak is unlikely to get in public, or private, despite the new warm mood of Franco-British pragmatism, is an assurance from Mr Macron that France will take back asylum-seekers who've crossed the Channel from his country.

That scenario has been described to me by a number of French journalists as politically toxic. The left would accuse Mr Macron of doing the UK's policing for them, they say, while the far right would accuse him of filling up France with those they label "illegal migrants".

It's not the first time the French have protested to UK lawmakers that "we have politics too."

Ukrainians fire artillery near Bakhmut
Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine is now in its second year - something the UK and France want to halt

I heard the same argument often, during those bitter post-Brexit negotiations with the EU, where Mr Macron appeared to relish the role of "bad cop" - even though, in reality, his position was rarely dissimilar to that of the other big EU power, Germany.

The UK became engulfed in a domestic political crisis post-Brexit, but the concern of Mr Macron, an overt champion of the EU, those close to him would say, was that if the UK got the advantages of bloc membership after leaving (such as a favourable financial services deal or customs breaks) that would play into the hands of the increasingly popular French far right which, in those days, was agitating for "Frexit" - that is, France leaving the European Union.

That, in the French president's mind, according to Macron-watchers, was a key reason for sounding tough on Brexit, as well as the wider EU argument of "protecting their single market".

Former UK ambassador to France Peter Ricketts thinks Franco-British ties suffered particularly badly after Brexit because of the two countries' closeness:

"The friction of Brexit fell on to the UK-French relationship. We live next door to each other. No country has closer links to us in so many ways, whether it's through family, business, or war commemorations. We are so very alike that our relationship is often a competitive one. It's like sibling rivalry."

Many UK politicians and much of the country's popular press believed Paris was out to punish its neighbour, dismissively nicknamed "Les Rosbifs". There were rows over customs, migrant smuggler dinghies and fishing rights (including the UK getting out the gunboats in 2021 as both countries postured out at sea). Boris Johnson's successor as prime minister, Liz Truss, publicly questioned whether the French president was a friend or foe to the United Kingdom.

Liz Truss and Emmanuel Macron
French relations with the UK have been tense in recent years

But now says, Pierre Haski, "No-one in France talks about Brexit. It hardly features at all in the French media." Deals with the UK won't be viewed in those terms anymore. And EU membership is more popular in France these days, even if a distaste for Brussels' perceived interference is still widespread.

It's also important to point out, that while Franco-British political relations have been fractious and strained over the last years, contacts of course continued between the cross-Channel neighbours.

Ambassador Ricketts spoke to me with enthusiasm about King Charles' upcoming trip to France, closely co-ordinated with Downing Street. You could say it's the icing on the gâteau of a sweeter Franco-British understanding.

This will be the King's first state visit. And the French, Peter Ricketts observes are "really touched." It's a strong symbol of the ties between the two countries, he says, that rises above politics.

The French - who violently finished off their own monarchy a couple of hundred years ago - are rather obsessed by, you could say enamoured with, the British Royal Family, an influential figure at the Elysée confided in me.

"We all watched the [TV series] The Crown. We were addicted," she gushed.

Queen Elizabeth II arriving in Paris
Queen Elizabeth II made frequent visits to France during her reign, and spoke French fluently

Ahead of Friday's summit the Elysée Palace told journalists that France and the UK are "committed not only to work together, but to work together for the benefit of each other."

Translation: the two countries are no longer in post-Brexit defensive mode. There's a new confidence that cooperating and collaborating won't immediately be seen as a win for one, or the weakness of the other.

"Emmanuel Macron is willing to invest in Rishi Sunak," Lord Ricketts told me, even though the prime minister faces a general election next year, with the odds stacked against him.

I once heard Franco-British relations likened to a climate, rather than an evolving relationship.

If that is the case, the weather is currently looking clement.

Rishi Sunak's recent Brexit deal with the EU over Northern Ireland has also really helped the bilateral atmosphere. Paving the way for possible new deals to ease other post-Brexit complications like trade hurdles at Dover and Calais, and job opportunities in France and the UK for youngsters.

You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second