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Why Truss and Macron Are Right to Reset Franco-British Relations

Why Truss and Macron Are Right to Reset Franco-British Relations
 Georgina Wright
Resident Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for International Studies

For the past five years, relations between London and Paris have gone from bad to worse. Brexit, AUKUS, migration and fisheries - it's hard to keep track of the number of spats the two countries have had. But there are signs that things are changing. Yesterday evening, France and the UK published a joint statement promising a new bilateral summit next year - the first since 2018. This was announced on the same day as European countries gathered in Prague for the first summit of the European Political Community.

There are two reasons why Truss and Macron are right to agree to a bilateral reset. First, it would be strategic. France and the UK share many of the same instincts. They are the two largest military and nuclear powers in Europe, with diplomatic operations to match. People-to-people ties are considerable: London is France’s fourth biggest city (around 145 000 French citizens live here). France is still a top destination for British tourists. More unites them than divides them - at least on paper.

Second, it is an easy political win. Macron would gain an ally on European defence and nuclear energy. Truss, who is proud to have been loyal to Boris Johnson until the bitter end, can complete what he had dreamed of, but never managed to achieve: a new chapter in the Franco-British relationship.

Much water under the bridge

Until very recently, the Franco-British relationship was in a dire state.

The British government never forgave Macron for questioning the efficiency of the AstraZeneca vaccine - which, at the time, was the most widely-administered Covid jab in the UK for the over 65s. Many still believe Macron is trying to punish London for leaving the EU - and that if the EU is unwilling to change the Northern Ireland Protocol, or let the UK participate in the EU’s flagship research programme Horizon Europe and its space programme Galileo, it's largely down to Paris. London has also accused Paris of holding up bilateral work on slowing down the flow of migrants crossing the Channel.

The relationship is now in a much better place. The war in Ukraine has brought both governments closer together. 

On the other side of the Channel, France did not appreciate the UK government’s attempt to divide the EU during Brexit negotiations as well as its constant criticism of, and combative approach towards, Brussels. Nor was it amused by the UK government’s leaking of excerpts from private conversations between Macron and Johnson, without providing the full context for his remarks. The attempt to politicise and negotiate migration crossings at Calais over Twitter also ruffled French feathers, with the French government accusing Johnson of posting the letter on Twitter before Paris had even had a chance to receive it.

But the relationship is now in a much better place. The war in Ukraine has brought both governments closer together. Over the summer, France and the UK held several high-level meetings, including a Senior Level Group meeting under the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties designed to strengthen Franco-British defence and security cooperation. This rapprochement may not have been visible, but the public criticism and swipes at each other were certainly less frequent towards the end of Johnson's mandate.

Most British ministers share good working relations with their French counterparts. France's Defence Minister, Sébastien Lecornu, had a productive meeting with UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in July 2022. Similarly, the new UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, is understood to have friendly relations with Catherine Colonna, his French counterpart – who, immediately before becoming foreign minister, served as French Ambassador to the UK for three years. This autumn, the UK’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman and France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin will announce new measures to tackle illegal migration across the English Channel.

Even Brexit doesn't appear to be the stumbling block for closer relations than it once was. For Paris, Brexit negotiations are not a matter for bilateral relations, but instead the responsibility of Maroš Šefčovič and his team at the European Commission - all of whom enjoy Paris' full support. France will be keeping a close eye on developments but as long as the Northern Ireland Protocol does not blow up, Brexit shouldn't hold up further cooperation.

The need for a Franco-British Summit

Nonetheless, a lot more needs to be done to mend the relationship.

First, the governments of France and Britain must find ways to meet more often in person. One of the key downsides of Brexit has been the loss of interaction between France and the UK. Before Brexit, diplomats used to catch up in the margins of EU meetings - sometimes up to several times a week. Brexit has meant fewer opportunities to meet, socialise and discuss bilateral issues.

The good news is that the next Franco-British summit will happen sometime in 2023, almost five years after the last one was held. The covid pandemic was often cited as justification for the postponement of the 36th Franco-British summit, but low levels of trust between both countries are probably a better explanation. The fact that the summit is happening next year proves that relations are in a better place.

 Brexit has meant fewer opportunities to meet, socialise and discuss bilateral issues.

But if the summit is to generate a genuine reset, it needs substance, such as the launch of new initiatives and opportunities for cooperation. The two governments have cited energy cooperation, especially nuclear, as priorities for the summit. Other options could include securing supply chains, coordinating maritime presence in the Indopacific, countering hybrid threats and improving joint situation assessment.

Both governments should consider setting up an expert group, with experts from both countries, to provide input.

Supporting each other’s global initiatives

Nonetheless, a Franco-British summit will not be sufficient to mend relations. Where possible, the UK and France should also publicly support each other's initiatives.

For France, this means the UK taking an interest in Macron's proposal for a European political community, a new political platform to bring European countries closer together to address issues that affect the whole continent such as Covid-19, vaccine production or even how to respond to the war in Ukraine. For Macron, the European political community can only succeed with the UK in it.

The good news is that the Prime Minister not only attended the first meeting in Prague yesterday - she also supports the initiative. Whether the UK remains committed to the platform depends on what follows. For Liz Truss, it needs to be intergovernmental, and separate from existing initiatives like the G7 or NATO. She also wants no role for the EU or its institution.

But it takes two to tango. For the UK, France also needs to show an interest in some of Britain’s proposals. The UK wants more forums to discuss multilateral issues. France should look to support the UK’s effort to strengthen the Quint, an informal grouping bringing together the US, the UK, France, Germany and Italy. It should also engage with Truss' idea to make the G7 an "economic NATO"- by giving it more muscle so that G7 members and allies like South Korea and Australia can better coordinate sanctions. The term "economic NATO" is unlikely to fly in Paris especially given French voters’ ambivalence toward NATO - but it would be wrong for France to dismiss the idea outright. Showing interest does not always lead to full commitment, but it can do wonders to re-establish trust.


Despite all the hiccups over the years, France and the UK are natural allies. Bilateral spats should not prevent them from working more closely together.

Macron and Truss are right: the time for a bilateral reset is now.


Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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