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High hopes UK-France summit will reset soured post-Brexit relations

As Emmanuel Macron prepares to welcome Rishi Sunak to Paris, hopes are high that the first UK-France summit since 2018 will turn the page on years of strained post-Brexit relations.

The Prime Minister will travel to the French capital on Friday for the talks, which will focus on issues including tackling migrant small boats crossings, boosting defence co-operation and energy security.

The French government sees it as an opportunity to reset the cross-Channel relationship.

“Our priority is to reconnect and get back into the habit of working together,” an Elysee Palace source said.

It comes after several years of heightened tensions between the two nations, featuring difficult Brexit negotiations and bust-ups over fishing rights and migrant Channel crossings.

It hit a low point with the 2021 signing of the Aukus nuclear submarine deal, which saw Australia ditch France in favour of an agreement with the UK and US.

Political turmoil in Westminster and language used by Mr Sunak’s predecessors soured the mood. Boris Johnson urged the French to “donnez-moi un break”, while Liz Truss refused to say whether Mr Macron was a “friend or foe” when she ran for the Tory leadership.

While Mr Sunak has pursued a more positive relationship with France and Europe since taking office, his trip to Paris is regarded as key in improving it further.

“This summit is a very important step in all this recovery process in our relationship with the UK,” the Elysee official said.

“It’s a moment when we demonstrate ambition, determination and a real openness to do more together.”

The priority for the UK Government is pushing for further joint efforts to prevent migrants crossing the English Channel.

Ahead of his travels, Mr Sunak said he hoped to “strengthen and deepen” cooperation with France and build on the £63 million agreement announced in November to help prevent crossings.

For Paris, defence and foreign policy would naturally take centre-stage rather than migration, according to Alice Pannier, research fellow at the French IFRI think tank.

“It’s fair to say that it wouldn’t have been the first item on the French agenda if the UK had not pushed that hard,” she told the PA news agency.

But, she added, “there is an understanding that migration is a domestic politics priority for the UK right now and it’s something that France has a shared responsibility for”.

Mr Sunak, speaking to a select group of reporters during a visit to Dover on Wednesday, highlighted “standing up to Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine” as one of the issues “we want to work closely with our partners and allies on”.

The Prime Minister and Mr Macron will be keen on “sending signals to Russia and to other potential rivals around the world that the UK and France, as Europe’s two biggest military players and the two nuclear weapons-armed states, are ready to work together for Europe’s security and broader international security,” Ms Pannier said.

The specialist in UK-Europe relations said the top priority of all for the talks is “mending the relationship, updating the partnership, having strong language on some of the very pressing issues”.

Historically, UK-France summits happened almost yearly, but the ill feeling has seen a five-year pause since the last one held at the Sandhurst military academy in 2018.

Because of the long hiatus, both sides will be careful not to “oversell” the outcomes of this meeting, Ms Pannier said.

If it goes well, it will be used as a launchpad to gradually rebuild the relationship to levels that “make sense for such two big neighbours”.

“There was a lot of substance 10 years ago but in the meantime so much has happened on the political level that these two huge neighbours that have so much in common and share so many interests, the relationship has been so underwhelming for the past five to almost 10 years that they have to restart slow,” she said.

“This will to move on is shared on both sides, so I think it’s going to be a very positive summit.”