Sunak and Macron prepare show of unity in Paris as Vladimir Putin looks on
UK and France ready to bury the hatchet after 7 years of feuding over Brexit.
LONDON — Britain and France will aim to bury the hatchet Friday after seven years of feuding and send a message of Western unity to Vladimir Putin.
U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron will meet in Paris for the first Anglo-French summit since 2018, with both leaders hoping to secure small-scale policy wins they can sell to domestic audiences.
But beyond the need for agreements on migration, energy and mobility for young people, greater forces are driving the squabbling neighbors toward a closer relationship after the bitterness sparked by the U.K.’s 2016 Brexit vote.
Sunak and Macron lead Western Europe’s two great military powers, and are painfully aware of the need to show Russia that the West remains unified in the face of its brutal war in Ukraine. Defense cooperation will be central to Friday’s discussions.
“There’s a war in Europe, we face a common threat, and it’s a test for our two countries which have the biggest armies in Europe and nuclear capabilities. We share a particular responsibility,” an Elysée official said.
Both sides are aware that with the eyes of the world upon them, there is more than a bilateral relationship at stake, added Pierre Haroche, a Paris-based defense lecturer at Queen Mary University.
“The Russians will be watching and will be attentive to the signals coming out of the summit. If it’s a disappointing summit, it’ll send a signal of weakness,” he said.
Charles Grant, director of the think tank the Centre for European Reform, said Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made Sunak and Macron realize “they need to get on better.”
“Britain and France can’t be at loggerheads if that’s going to make the West weaker vis-a-vis Russia, and potentially China as well,” he said.
The ground was laid for improved bilateral relations by last week’s landmark agreement between Britain and the European Commission over the Northern Ireland protocol, a bitterly-contested aspect of the U.K.’s post-Brexit trade agreement with Europe, which poisoned relations on both sides of the English Channel.
At Friday’s summit, Sunak and Macron are expected to discuss how best to continue to support Ukraine, and to call on Putin to resume Russia’s participation in the New START nuclear treaty, which places limitations on intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. The Russian president announced last month that he was suspending his country’s participation in the treaty.
According to Grant, the trickiest subject will be how the war should end, with two camps starting to emerge within the Western alliance.
The U.K. has so far aligned with the Nordic and Baltic countries, which are calling for the Western alliance to keep supporting Kyiv until it has at least recovered its post-2014 territory, or can negotiate a settlement with Moscow from a position of maximum strength. Some European allies have privately started to concede that Ukraine might need to give up some of its land in exchange for a peace deal.
“Trying to keep the Brits and the French together on Ukraine is quite important,” Grant said. “Macron is probably quite keen to make sure that the British are not going to go for a gung-ho, enthusiastic, kind of fighting-until-the-last-Ukrainian-is-dead, type of approach.”
Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy at the London-based Policy Exchange think tank, said the French appreciate “the need to crystallize a clear message on France’s alignment with its allies,” adding: “Joint statements and initiatives to defeat Putin will be a key priority.”
Drawing a line under AUKUS
To that end, officials on both sides hope to signal closer cooperation on defense and energy security.
Sunak and Macron will discuss the FC/ASW missile program, a new generation of cruise missiles being developed jointly by the U.K. and France. Paris halted the program in fury in September 2021 after Australia canceled a multi-billion-dollar submarine deal between the two nations in favor of a broader security partnership with the U.S. and Britain.
With awkward timing, Sunak will travel to California immediately after the Paris summit to meet U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for further discussions regarding the so-called AUKUS partnership. The trio will use an event in San Diego on Monday to announce details of Australia’s new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, expected to be constructed jointly by the U.S. and Britain.
The aim for Sunak and Macron on Friday will be to mend fences after the fallout, with France seeking reassurance from the U.K. that they are still willing to team up in the Indo-Pacific.
“There is space for a new initiative after Brexit and the AUKUS alliance which isolated France. The U.K. has a logistics base in Singapore, the French have a base in Djibouti, they could pool their resources, exchange information,” said Haroche.
“The conflict in Ukraine is the priority, but everybody is aware of the tensions between China and the U.S. Any conflict there would have a very strong impact on Europe,” he added.
Strengthening the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), a British-French military force of 10,000 personnel, will also be part of the conversation.
And Sunak and Macron will seek new areas of defense cooperation, including how to ensure the different models of fighter jet being developed by separate consortia involving Britain and France remain interoperable — though French officials urged prudence on when these talks could yield tangible results.
Gaston said there may also be a shared interest in further joint working on new military hardware, bringing the two major European security powers “into a more collaborative posture.”
“This will require the French being willing to go outside the EU defense framework, which currently struggles to accommodate third parties, in order to pursue bilateral projects with Britain,” she added.
Macron, however, has been a leading voice calling for the EU to boost its own defense industries and “buy European” — which some observers believe may undermine enthusiasm for launching new projects with the U.K.
“The British are always trying to compensate for Brexit and obtain authorizations that we cannot give them,” a senior French diplomat said.
Tackling small boats
The U.K.’s other big ask will be on migration, with Sunak desperate to show further progress on tackling the number of small boats crossing the Channel — an issue of intense interest to his U.K. Conservative Party and many of its core voters.
The Paris summit comes at the end of a high-stakes week for the British prime minister, in which he unveiled controversial new laws to deport almost all adult-age migrants who reach the U.K. illegally, regardless of their asylum status. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told POLITICO Tuesday she believes the plan breaks international law.
But both Sunak and Macron will be keen not to let the divisive topic of small boat arrivals overshadow the reset of their relationship.
“The summit must not end up becoming a face-off over migration; instead it must inaugurate a new phase in the relationship, with a convergence of views on climate, the war in Ukraine,” said Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, a French MP for Macron’s party and head of the European affairs parliamentary committee.
Expectation is high that the U.K. and France will agree on further small-scale measures to tackle the issue, building on a bilateral deal reached in November. London wants Paris to allocate more police officers to patrol France’s northern beaches.
The French government, however, wants Britain to commit to longer-term funding of such operations, and a second Elysée official pushed back against the idea that more French patrols will solve the problem. “We already cooperate very robustly, we have already a lot of boots on the ground, and I think boots on the ground are not necessarily the most operational answer to the migration issue,” they said.
British hopes of a broader French agreement to take back migrants who cross is not expected to materialize at this summit, as French officials argue the issue of so-called returns can only be resolved at the EU level. Britain hopes, however, that Macron might in the longer term help achieve a new returns agreement between the U.K. and the Commission.
In the meantime, a smaller-scale agreement that Sunak can sell back home as a win appears the most likely outcome.
“The British are very concerned about small boats, that’s Rishi Sunak’s personal and No. 1 ask for the summit,” Grant said. “But as I understand it, there is not a lot the French can do. They can do a bit more than they’re doing now.
“For them, the priority is getting a better relationship with the British and leading on to more cooperation on security and defense in the long run. So there’s a bit of an incompatibility between what the two sides want.”
Clea Caulcutt reported from Paris.