Entente kept cordiale as May and Macron test relationship
Behind the warm words, the military parade, and a cosy pub lunch, a familiar brittleness ran through the 35th Franco-British summit, as President Emmanuel Macron made his first official visit to the UK.
Whether on Brexit or on Theresa’s May’s reluctance to use British taxpayers’ money to support the Calais economy and help the port overcome the blight of the migrant crisis, tension was not far from the surface. A hailstorm descended as Mrs May and Mr Macron reviewed the Coldstream Guards at the Sandhurst military academy near London and underlined a two-decade old defence pact between Britain and France.
The ranks of ministers were drenched as aides frantically searched for umbrellas. Even the proposed loan of the Bayeux tapestry to Britain — the latest flourish of Mr Macron’s “gesture diplomacy” — started to unravel as Isabelle Attard, the former director of the tapestry museum, suggested the transfer was “worrying on a number of levels”.
Mr Macron raised France’s concerns about Britain’s “have our cake and eat it” — or “avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre” — approach to Brexit during a lunch at the Royal Oak, a gastropub co-owned by Michael Parkinson, the broadcaster, in Mrs May’s constituency in the Thames Valley.
Over a meal of dressed crab and blood orange followed by duck breast, Mr Macron explained his commitment to the integrity of the EU single market. There were French waiters and French wine — a Riesling and a Domaine Grand Romane — and officials said the mood was relaxed.
Mr Macron remains adamant, French diplomats said, that the future of the EU hinges on its ability to maintain the integrity of the single market and not allowing Britain to cherry-pick aspects of it. “There is no Machiavellian strategy to punish the British, we just cannot offer them an ad hoc trade deal that would hurt the single market,” a senior French official said. “There would be a risk of contagion, there would be a risk of unravelling for the EU.”
Mr Macron’s first visit to Britain as president marks a new phase in Anglo-French relations, which have oscillated sharply in the half century since a “Non” from Charles de Gaulle in 1967 put Britain’s attempt to join the European Economic Community on hold.
Denis MacShane, a former Labour Europe minister, remembered a strong relationship between Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand — manifested through French support for the UK during the Falklands war — followed by a freeze as Mrs Thatcher became increasingly Eurosceptic.
There was a further low during the “mad cow crisis” of the mid-1990s when John Major’s Tory government battled with France over an EU beef ban, but relations were restored in 1997 with the election of Tony Blair, who took an early opportunity to give a speech in French at the National Assembly in Paris.
The basis for recent Franco-British co-operation was the 1998 Saint-Malo summit, when Mr Blair and Jacques Chirac responded to the feeble European response to the Kosovo crisis by developing joint military capabilities.
“It wasn’t exactly a European army but an acceptance of the need for European defence co-operation,” said Mr MacShane. The meeting at Sandhurst on Thursday was intended to show that the military element of the Franco-British relationship will endure beyond Brexit.
The 2003 Iraq war wrecked the Blair-Chirac relationship, while David Cameron and François Hollande — from different ends of the political spectrum — also had a frosty relationship. Mrs May is keen to build better ties with Mr Macron as she looks for support in the next phase of Brexit negotiations, and aides from both sides said the chemistry between the leaders was “good”.
Mr MacShane noted that unlike Mr Hollande, Mr Macron has so far avoided “aggressive language” over Brexit. In Paris, the desire to take revenge for Britain’s aggressive “red carpet” courtship of bankers and entrepreneurs during the Hollande era has been balanced by a pragmatic view of the need for a strong security and defence relationship at a time of terrorism and instability.
France and Britain account for half of the defence spending in the EU, an Elysée adviser pointed out ahead of Thursday’s meeting. Paris, which has troops deployed in Iraq and the Sahel region to fight Islamist groups, is keen to secure all the operational and financial help it can to support these operations.
“Our wish is that the UK remain associated with EU defence through a status that needs to be defined,” a French aide said.
Brexit and Mrs May’s domestic weakness have changed the balance of the relationship, though Peter Ricketts, former ambassador to Paris, rejected suggestions that France is exploiting Britain’s weakness over Brexit to demand concessions, such as a £44.5m investment in security at Calais.
He said: “We have helped them out in Calais for years and it’s in our interest to do that.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative Eurosceptic MP, agreed that it was better to enforce a tight border in Calais than in Dover. Lord Ricketts said that Britain and France had an “equal defence and security partnership” — including the shared fight against Islamist extremism — but that Mr Macron would be a tough negotiator on Brexit. “He’s not looking for a breakdown in the talks — he’s looking for a negotiated settlement that is in France’s interest.”