OPINION - Rishi in Paris – vive le bromance

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

The United States is Britain’s most important ally. But America, with its vast military, security guarantees and economic might, is lots of countries’ most important ally. As such, our relationship is inherently asymmetrical. We follow their off-year gubernatorial elections, they don’t know where Wales is. Alas, we are more into them and they are into us.

France, on the other hand, can lay claim to being Britain’s key bilateral relationship. Admittedly, things started off on the wrong foot, what with English claims over Calais, the Hundred Years War and so on. But the Entente Cordiale, a series of agreements signed in 1904, represents one of the most longstanding and successful alliances in European history.

Today, the United Kingdom and French Republic share an extraordinarily close defence and security partnership, bulwarked by the 2010 Lancaster House treaties. Still, it has not always been easy, from Charles de Gaulle’s “non” to the UK’s entry to the European Economic Community to the fallout from the AUKUS nuclear submarine agreement.

But it is Brexit that led relations to a modern-day low. The rift over fishing rights in the Channel Islands in May 2021 was a particular nadir, with France threatening to cut off power supplies and Britain deploying navy ships. Though it did enable one of my favourite West End Final newsletter subject lines, ‘Jersey Buoys’.

Today, Rishi Sunak met with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. The issue of small boat crossings was discussed and the UK has agreed to pay France £478m over three years to fund a new detention centre in France and hundreds of additional French law enforcement officers. This is however not the comprehensive returns agreement that Sunak ultimately wants.

But today’s summit was about more than what was discussed. What mattered is that it happened at all. This was the first meeting of its kind in five years. And while Brexit means these sorts of bilateral visits are more challenging, it also makes them much more important. For the UK is no longer in the room at regular EU summits. Relationships are no longer forged at 3am amid some interminable dispute over directives. So our diplomacy must be sharper and more proactive.

Part of the damage wrought by Brexit is the opportunity cost. Outside of the EU, the UK and France’s interests aren’t quite so aligned. But they are a damn sight closer than we sometimes choose to remember. Our two nations are bound not only by geography and past conflicts, but by shared interests and common challenges. From the Russian invasion of Ukraine to a revisionist and rising China, climate change, migration, energy policy, ageing populations and so on.

The jury is not, as Liz Truss suggested, out on whether Macron and by extension France are a “friend or foe”. The relationship is indisputable, despite the best efforts at times by both sides.

In the comment pages, Emily Sheffield warns that Gary Lineker has played into the Tories’ hands because for them, a row on migrants is just what they want. While I reflect on becoming an Austrian citizen a few days ago. If it’s recompense for making my grandparents stateless, I’ll take it. But I won’t pretend it’s anything more.

And finally, it’s the Oscars this Sunday. Who will win – and who should? Charlotte O’Sullivan has your must-read cheat sheet.

Have a lovely weekend.

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