March 10 saw Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron meet in France for the first UK-France Summit since 2018. This meeting is the latest sign that Sunak wants to improve the UK’s relationship with France, following an agreement on migration concluded in November 2022. Topics under discussion included defence, ongoing support for Ukraine as well as plans to tackle immigration across the channel. 

Immigration is a ‘Shared Problem’

One of Sunak’s five priorities is to tackle immigration to the UK via the English Channel, captured by the slogan: ‘Stop the Boats.’ This was discussed at the summit, following the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, introduced to Parliament on March 7. The UK will give France £480 million in funding with the aim of reducing the number of people crossing the channel in small boats. Britain will also commit to funding a migration detention centre in France, which has never been done before.

Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer stated his desire for the Prime Minister to settle a returns agreement, to return those who are unable to progress through the asylum process. However, Sunak and Macron’s new plans are focused on realising previous commitments through increased funding and police presence. Any agreement concerning returning people to France will need to be negotiated with the EU, rather than France alone. The returns agreement is now a broader issue for another time.

Speaking at a press conference, Sunak stated that the UK ‘will always comply with our international treaty obligations.’ This comes amidst concerns that the Illegal Migration Bill could be incompatible with international law, such as the European Convention on Human Rights. Sunak’s latest statement is an attempt to calm backlash over the Bill, with a focus on Anglo-French coordination and the two countries’ willingness to ‘solve this shared problem.’

Expanding European Defence 

Defence was another key topic of the summit given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Macron is a keen contributor to conversations on European security, making this a priority for him. Both leaders have agreed to take a unified stance by pledging to provide further training and resources for Ukraine’s military. For the time being, military aid is viewed as necessary in helping Ukraine gain a stronger position when it comes to negotiating with Russia.

Additionally, the agreement includes working together on weapons development and the potential use of joint expeditionary forces. The leaders also discussed activity in the Indo-Pacific region and the importance of this to European security. Both countries are NATO members and permanent members of the UN Security Council. In setting their sights on influencing security outside of Europe, Sunak and Macron are establishing a path to greater involvement in global security.

A Diplomatic Reset

Aside from the political issues, this trip undoubtedly aimed towards improving relations between the two nations. Previous UK Prime Ministers have faced difficulties in this area. Johnson’s social media faux pas and Truss’ careless comments on the indeterminate nature of Anglo-French relations have spotlighted some of the deeper political issues between the two countries. 

By contrast, the tone of this meeting was much warmer as Sunak and Macron spoke of great friendships and linked destinies between the two countries. In token, signed rugby shirts were exchanged ahead of England vs France Six Nations match on March 11. Sports and culture are, of course, frequently used in international diplomacy to signify friendliness and respect.

This summit displayed Sunak’s more diplomatic approach to relations with other European leaders, following his meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the new Windsor Framework. By all accounts, Sunak is setting himself up for a more pragmatic premiership, particularly when it comes to Europe. This is a welcome change from the competitive stances of previous prime ministers, signifying a return to a more courteous form of diplomacy.

What Will the Future Hold?

From March 26 through to the 29, King Charles will be making his first state visit to France as King. Accompanied by Queen Consort Camilla, he will attend a Remembrance ceremony, address the French National Assembly and attend a State Banquet hosted by President Macron. Combining state visits with soft power, this diplomatic approach helps consolidate the renewed friendly intentions between France and Britain. 

This summit was a very public first step in repairing some of the damage post-Brexit. Whether it marks a permanent change in the UK’s international diplomatic stance, beyond the immediate concerns of war and immigration, is yet to be seen.

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