Macron-Sunak Meeting
"Je t’aime, moi non plus"

A Geo-political perspective on British French relations
© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Ludovic Marin

As the American poet Robert Frost observed, good fences make good neighbours. In the absence of a UK-French equivalent of the admirable Deutsch-Französisches Jugendwerk, mutual understanding across the English Channel is less advanced than that across the River Rhine; but this has perhaps also contributed to a greater mutual fascination, such as that expressed by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in their 1970s hit song Je t’aime, moi non plus. The exotic is often also erotic.

Thus Prime Minister Sunak’s recent meeting with President Macron on 10 March, the first such meeting in five years, follows in a long line of postwar exchanges which started with De Gaulle’s rejection of the entreaties by Prime Ministers MacMillan and Wilson to accept the United Kingdom as a Member of the EEC: proceeded through Pompidou’s acceptance of Heath’s proposal; and survived Mrs Thatcher’s abrasive relationship with Mitterand who, in return, described her as possessing ‘the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe’. More recent relationships have been less poetic but rather more fruitful, Blair-Chirac and Cameron-Hollande standing out.

The relationship between France and the UK has been marked in recent years by arguments over fishing rights and migration and mistrust between Macron and Boris Johnson. With Johnson dispatched, an opportunity is sorely needed to discuss issues ranging from security, climate and energy to economic relations and shared foreign policy goals. A state visit to France for King Charles lll is also on the cards. 

Brexit Dealt a Hard Blow on British-French Trade Relations

Will Macron and Sunak dance to Aznavour’s You are the one for me, formidable? They have more than a little in common on age and professional background. Yet Sunak must approach cooperation with France against a backdrop of a botched Brexit, a viscerally nationalistic Conservative party and a snail-eater-hating press. Macron, meanwhile – despite the occasional riot – is in charge of his party and his country and now plays a major role on the European stage.

This summit could not have happened without the new EU-UK agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol, under which the UK looks set to rejoin the EU’s Horizon programme for scientific and technical cooperation. Discussions between the UK and the EU regarding the City of London will also be revived. Issues such as these are of considerable interest to both national leaders.

Brexit has hit UK-French trade more than the UK’s trade with any other country, with border delays being reported by four out of every five firms and an extra two to three weeks added to import-export schedules in supply chains. Losses have cost French businesses €1.9 bn and have cost the UK more. Many SMEs in both countries have ceased cross-channel trade altogether, seeking to grow domestic or other market shares rather than tackle the obstacles imposed by Brexit. Between 2018 and the end of 2021, trade in goods between the UK and Germany fell by 18.6% and between the UK and France by 14.1% (against a. EU average of 10.7%): but while Germany’s total imports grew by 5.4% and its exports by 2.4%, the figures for France were -0.4% and -4.5% respectively. The UK suffered the most, with imports of goods down 6.8% and exports 7%. UK services exports are down 10% below 2019 levels (though partly as a result of the covid pandemic) and imports are down by over 30%.

Common Interests on Energy Problems

Britain and France have common energy interests too. While the UK often relies on imports of electricity from the continent to balance its own grid, particularly during periods when renewables are generating less, last year saw a number of consecutive months when electricity from the UK via subsea cables made up for shutdowns of EDF’s nuclear reactors in Europe’s largest energy-exporting country. Britain looks set to remain in 2023 a net exporter of electricity to continental Europe and to France in particular. While the energy provisions of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement remain in force until 30 June 2026, both sides will wish to ensure provisions for cooperation between energy regulators and matters such as trade in radio-isotopes continue.

One import from France of which the UK would like less is that of migrants seeking to cross the English Channel in small boats. While the trafficking of people via road transport has largely been closed down, sea transport has grown to unprecedented levels with consequently growing loss of life. If energy is high on Macron’s agenda, asylum seekers (he would call them economic migrants) will be top of Sunak’s.

Aerospace remains another important area of cooperation. Airbus contributes £5.6 billion to the UK economy, involving 2,000 British suppliers and supporting 86,000 jobs, 30% of which are in SMEs. Moreover, in 2020, 45% of this procurement was in the UK’s 10% of most deprived local authority areas. The cooperation which started with Concorde in the 1960s remains vital to both countries’ satellite, telecommunications and other aerospace ambitions. 

The War in Ukraine Remains Highest Priority

High on the British-French agenda will be, inevitably, the war in Ukraine. While there are indications that both leaders see the issue as existential, the UK has hitherto been keener to arm Ukraine. There will be considerable pressure on the leaders of Europe’s two nuclear powers to agree on a concerted approach to the continent’s major foreign policy challenge. Macron’s recent change of tone will help in this.

The number of French citizens living and working in London makes it France’s fifth-largest city. Despite Brexit, many retired British people continue to spend much time in France, though their Schengen stay allowance is now reduced to 90 every 180 days. Both are important constituencies of wealthy citizens. In the unlikely event that the leaders can agree on nothing else, a people-to-people exchange could fill more than a paragraph in any final communiqué.

Sir Graham Watson was Leader of the Liberal Group in the European Parliament from 2002-09 and President of the ALDE Party from 2011-15. He now teaches at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and at Symbiosis University’s School of International Studies in Pune, India.