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OPINION: Macron and Sunak show France and UK can be good neighbours again

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron and Sunak show France and UK can be good neighbours again
France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) escorts with an umbrella Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) at the end of the French-British summit, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on March 10, 2023 - British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed a new pact to stop illegal cross-Channel migration after a summit in Paris on March 10, 2023 aimed at overcoming years of Brexit tensions. Both leaders hailed a new start in relations between the two neighbours, after intense talks in Paris which were also marked by expressions of unity in their support for Ukraine in fighting the Russian invasion. (Photo by Kin Cheung / POOL / AFP)

France may have humiliated England on the rugby field but the rekindled cooperation between the neighbouring countries is a win-win situation for both governments, writes John Lichfield. Even if the UK's French-bashing press won't accept it.

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It has been a bad couple of days for English Francophobes.

At Twickenham, the English rugby team was squashed by France 10-53, their worst home defeat since the Norman Conquest.

It might have been worse. Another converted try and two penalties and it would have been 10-66.

Judging by the comments in the right-wing, pro-Brexit press, the summit meeting between President Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak in Paris last Friday was an equally crushing defeat.

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Britain is to pay France almost half a billion pounds over three years to strengthen efforts to halt the armada of small boats carrying Afghan, Syrian, Kurdish and Albanian asylum seekers to Kent.

The Daily Mail and its readers were outraged. France was being “rewarded” for its failure to stop a dangerous and illegal traffic, they complained.

Macron had “refused” his duty to take back failed asylum seekers. He had even taken a swipe at Saint Brexit during the post-summit press conference, the Mail protested.

Daily Express readers were equally furious. “We’re paying France to do its job. Sunak rolls over as expected,” one reader wrote.

There was much more to Friday’s summit than the small boats controversy. It was a welcome and overdue restoration of friendly UK-French relations, post-Brexit and post-Boris. It was the first bilateral summit for five years between neighbours who also happen to be the biggest military powers in democratic Europe and the world’s fifth and sixth largest economies.

But let us look at the small boats issue first.

Rishi Sunak did sign up for a more than doubling of British contributions to the French effort to block the flow of asylum seekers.

The UK government is paying France €72m in this UK financial year. Sunak agreed to pay €140m in 2023-24, €190, in 2024-5 and €205m in 2025-6.

In return, France will build a detention centre for illegal migrants somewhere in northern France. The two countries will have, for the first time, a joint command centre for policing the Channel. There will be 500 new police on French beaches.

Paying France to do its job?

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For 20 years since the Le Touquet treaty, Britain’s southern “frontier” has been, in effect, in France. The French tax-payer has subsidised Britain’s efforts to shelter from successive waves of  European asylum seekers and  migrants from the Balkans, Africa, the middle east and Asia – only a fraction of whom want to go to the UK.

The published figures are opaque (because they are politically sensitive in France) but more than half the cost of “protecting” Britain from asylum seekers and migrants has fallen on France until now. That, as I understand it, will change slightly with the new Macron-Sunak deal but not much.

Will the extra money stop the migrants? No. But it might help to reduce the proportion of successful crossings (about 50 percent at present) and therefore undermine the business model of the trafficking gangs.

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There are hundreds of kilometres of coastline and river estuary for the French to police. The small boats traffic is vastly profitable to people-smugglers. That is because the UK government has blocked almost all legal asylum routes and the French and UK government have sealed all illegal access by road or rail.

Why does France refuse to take back failed asylum seekers who are known to have been on French soil? Blame “Saint Brexit”.

Before the UK left the European Union such returns did happen (admittedly in small numbers) under the so-called “Dublin” agreement between EU countries. Boris Johnson, when he was Prime Minister, pestered Paris for a bilateral agreement on returning asylum seekers.

Macron pointed out – as he did again on Friday - that France has no right to make such a deal. As a member of the EU free movement area, France cannot make bi-lateral deals on right of entry or re-entry to the EU-27.

Britain must seek an agreement with Brussels -  something which is due to happen as part of a wider negotiation including the Balkan countries where part of the people-trafficking business is based.

The last British government but one (including Johnson and Priti Patel as Home Secretary) played to the media gallery by blaming France for the surge in small boat traffic. The Sunak government (with Suella Braverman as Home Secretary) has decided to work with France.

They are, at the same time, threatening legislation which would ban most people who arrive by small boat from ever seeking asylum in the UK. This may well be illegal under Britain’s commitment to the European human rights convention.

I have a strong suspicion – no proof – that this was a lump of red meat thrown to the Brexiteers and right-wing tabloids to distract from the change of policy towards France.

There was plenty of other business at the Elysée summit on Friday. Macron and Sunak agreed a French-British  programme to train Ukrainian marines.  They resurrected the 2010 Lancaster House agreement which set up a French-British military intervention force and pledged cooperation on new military hardware.

They also promised a new era of post-Brexit cultural cooperation, including more school exchanges.

After the Johnson era of cross-Channel provocation, Macron and Sunak have decided to be good neighbours. Brexit or no Brexit, the two countries need each other.

The Ukraine war makes the relationship between western Europe’s biggest military powers more important than ever. French relations with Germany are chilly. Britain needs all the help that it can get if it wants to improve its trade terms with the EU.

For the frog-bashing UK media, good relations with France are a cause for suspicion, not satisfaction. The Daily Mail carried a headline last week saying that Sunak had been “branded” a “Francophile” as if liking France was a criminal offence.

The Mail also employed a body-language expert to study the back-slapping and hand-shakes between Macron and Sunak on Friday. Her conclusion? Macron was the “alpha male” and Sunak his fawning junior.

How silly. Summits between long estranged allies do not necessarily have winners or losers. Last Friday’s meeting – unlike Le Crunch at Twickenham – was a win-win.

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