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UK-France post-summit review: Burying the hatchet and brave new bilateral?

Amelia Hadfield and Tea Zyberaj / Mar 2023

Photo: Alamy

 

The bromance continues, the entente remains cordial, and UK-France relations look to have been decently reset. In other words, the 36th Franco-British Summit, chaired by President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 10th March, 2023, appears to have been a success on a number of fronts.

First, in terms of overarching wins, the summit proved symbolically helpful in renewing the longstanding alliance between the two powers, based on their history of mutual interests, common values and a shared strategic vision for the future. Managing to avoid the Brexit toxicity that has clouded their relations for the past years, both sides agreed on a more structured framework for bilateral cooperation, representing something of a restart to post-Brexit rancour. Indeed, as the post-summit Joint Leaders’ Declaration makes clear, the stakes couldn’t be higher for a bilateral boost.

Set against the backdrop of increasing geopolitical instability, both in Europe and globally, the UK and France reinstated their shared commitment to work together to address the Russian threat to the European security architecture and the liberal international order, providing Ukraine with continued and coordinated military, economic and diplomatic support. As the two most consequential military players in Europe, founding members of NATO, nuclear powers and permanent members of the UNSC, their determination to enhance cooperation on defense and security, both bilaterally and with the international community, will be a key factor to strengthening the cohesion and resilience of the European project and global peace, stability, and prosperity. However, in addition to the noble agreements on big issues and small, the optics of the bilateral are equally important. Locally, this means a clear indication to domestic audiences on both sides of the channel of Sunak and Macron’s determination to bury the hatchet after years of Brexit-induced rancour. Regionally, and indeed globally, both sides “are painfully aware of the need to show Russia that the West remains unified in the face of its brutal war in the Ukraine”, pushing both security plans and defence cooperation to the top of the agenda.

Ukraine : Recovery and Reconstruction

The persistent strategic and military threat emanating from Russia’s contestation of the post-Cold war international order, has placed a premium on the reconstruction of UK-France relations, leveraging their shared determination against Russia’s unprovoked and unjustifiable aggression on Ukraine. During the summit, both sides stated their desire to forge closer bilateral and international cooperation on foreign and security policy, utilizing all the relevant provisions incorporated within the Lancaster house Treaties to support Ukraine in defending its people and territory from Russian aggression. Both countries stand ready to launch a variety of practical and strategic programmes, including the joint provision of military equipment and combat training of Ukrainian soldiers, as well as the reinforcement of diplomatic channels in the hopes of achieving an enduring peace treaty in line with the UN Charter.

Mutual concern was also expressed over Russia’s decision to suspend its participation in the New START Treaty, and its illegal control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. France and the UK made a show of unity on nuclear safety, energy and security cooperation, by calling on the Kremlin to recommit to the Treaty, return to full compliance with the principles enshrined in the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States, withdraw its control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and comply with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, a cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime and a vital component of the liberal rules-based order.

Building on the objectives agreed upon at the December 13, 2022, Paris international conference on the resilience of Ukraine, Macron and Sunak helpfully refreshed their broader commitment to support the people of Ukraine, working together on a number of recovery and reconstruction initiatives. In addition, the two countries pledged continued and ambitious coordination on sanctions against the aggressor, aiming to expand the already deployed economic measures so as to deter the Kremlin’s capacity to sustain its illegal aggression and ensure that Russia is held accountable for the war crimes and crimes against humanity it has committed. Encouragingly, both France and the UK appear intent on working together to coordinate preparations and ensure strategic alignment between the the Ukraine Recovery Conference to be held in London in June, and the international Summit for a new global finance pact to be held in Paris in the same month.

Defense and Security Issues

As Europe’s pre-eminent military powers, with shared security interests and partners across the world, there remains a clear rationale for Franco-British cooperation on defence and security. Reaffirming their commitment to the principles enshrined in the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, both sides set out their ambitions for the next decade, consisting primarily of ensuring the interoperability of their respective defence capabilities, better integrating their armed forces, and improving intelligence collaboration across Europe and NATO. As the principal vehicle for strengthening cooperation, the reinvigoration of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) within the context of the new and evolving security environment is likely to provide the greatest impetus to the Franco-British strategic partnership, as it currently stands. In terms of sea power, the UK and France reviewed the work undertaken in ratifying the 2021 Maritime Security Treaty, and used the bilateral to undertake a “joint maritime counterterrorism exercise” before the end of the year, as well as using the treaty’s provision to review key maritime security measures currently in place for the Channel Tunnel. Agreements in this area allowed Sunak and Macron to pledge further commitments to strengthen their cooperation on homeland defence, as well as to uphold the freedom of navigation, tackle cyber warfare and increase their presence in the Balkans and the Indo-Pacific.

Indo-Pacific

Despite ongoing competition over global security and defence contracts, France and the United Kingdom were able to reaffirm their commitment to regional security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic, Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Middle East, in the context of the summit. Developments in the highly contested Indo-Pacific however remain crucial to establishing the direction for future Franco-British defence cooperation. Given the alignment of their strategic priorities and their national commitments in the region, both countries agreed to strengthen their cooperation, welcoming a “deepening engagement with the Indo-Pacific region to intensify economic, security and rules-based partnerships supporting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” In the short term, this goal will likely take two forms. First, through coordinated maritime military deployments, drawing where possible on Europe’s Maritime, Land and Air assets, with a nod to UK contributions to the EU’s ongoing Maritime Security Strategy and Action Plan. Second, via enhanced and sustained dialogue on the region’s economic security and stability, working in conjunction with ASEAN, and the Pacific Island Forum’s 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.

China

Both Sunak and Macron denounced China’s growing assertiveness in the region and the challenges it poses to the liberal international order. As permanent members of the UNSC, and leaders in NATO, both sides recommitted themselves to working alongside regional partners to ensure the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues, as well as the restoration of Hong Kong’s freedoms. The tone here was carefully balanced between robust condemnation of China and its prospective role in Russia’s illegal war in the Ukraine, as well as ongoing “human rights violations and abuses, including in Xinjiang and Tibet” and remaining ready as global players “to work with China on global challenges such as climate change and global health issues.” Floreat, diplomacy.

Small Boats, Big Challenges

With an unprecedented number of Channel crossings and asylum applications in 2021, Anglo-French interaction on migration at the bilateral level has increased, though not necessarily cooperatively. Regulated by a slew of accords, including the 2003 Touquet Treaty and the 2018 Sandhurst agreement, both sides appeared firmly committed to reinforcing this bilateral cooperation, agreeing on a joint multi-year operational plan aimed at increasing the interception rate and reducing the number of crossings in the Channel. In addition to enhanced French contribution, the UK has agreed to a significant push in meeting the operational needs in the fight against human trafficking, people smuggling and illegal migration, pledging almost £500m over three years, double the amount it had initially planned to pay to France to tackle the issue. The new package will go towards increasing human resources deployment in France, as well as investing in new surveillance equipment such as drones, helicopters and aircraft. Joint efforts will also be made to dismantle organised crime groups (OCGs) responsible for enabling the dangerous and illegal small boat crossings.

Beyond the agreement to intensify their bilateral cooperation on migration, the summit also helped underline the importance of working with other European partners in putting an end to trafficking networks, and addressing the root causes of illegal migration. While Macron and Sunak fell short on offering concrete safe alternatives to the Mediterranean migration route and the Channel coastline, and kicked the can down the road in increasing the number of returns, discussions now point firmly in the direction of a  much larger agreement, i.e. the UK itself – with France - working towards a wider EU-UK migration agreement.

Recent developments have seen an improvement in relations between the UK and France, with both nations seeking new constructive pathways of engagement outside of the framework of the EU. Hailed as a ‘new start’, the Summit has served to heal some of the corrosive tensions and ongoing distrust that had characterized previous relations between the two sides, highlighting instead their shared strategic interests, and providing a forum from which to develop a forward-looking agenda to tackle global issues. Sunak described the meeting as an “entente renewed” and Macron as a “moment of reunion and reconnection.”  A good start, but let’s see how 2023 unfolds.

 

Amelia Hadfield

Amelia Hadfield

March 2023

About this author ︎►

Tea Zyberaj

Tea Zyberaj

March 2023

About this author ︎►

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