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Friday, 01 March 2024
French-British Relations Sour
James Denselow
The geopolitical rivalry between France and the UK goes back deep into history. Yet in recent times the two countries have been allied in the World Wars and partners in the most ambitious political union that Europe has ever seen. This can all be tracked back to the “Entente Cordiale” which comprised a series of agreements signed on the 8th of April 1904 between the two countries which saw a significant improvement in Anglo-French relations. Today, Brexit and the rise of more nationalist agendas has reinforced the pursuit of a narrower self interest from both Paris and London, one whose consequences are myriad but generally counterproductive.

The Aukus deal which brough the US, the UK and Australia into a closer strategic orbit, did so at the expense of an apoplectic France who lost a submarine contract and responded by withdrawing Ambassadors and cancelling events in the diplomatic equivalent of a full-on marital row. Interestingly Britain received the least of Paris’s anger as officials explained that they expected such actions from an increasingly unfriendly ally. Following the Aukus fallout the US has not only looked to rebuild ties with France, an opportunity Paris is looking to exploit to secure concessions around a strengthened European role in NATO, but Washington has also pushed for the UK to build bridges with France.

The UK’s approach to Europe and France seems to be currently dominated by the reverberations from Brexit and now the Covid crisis. Despite British Prime Minister Boris Johnson being elected on the promise to ‘get Brexit done’, the continued complexities especially around the status of Northern Ireland has meant that a trade war between the EU and the UK remains a genuine possibility. France and Germany fear that the EU's Northern Ireland compromise Protocol plan could threaten Single Market and Paris and Berlin are spearheading a group calling for plans to prepare counter-measures in case the latest Brexit talks fail.

Meanwhile the issue of illegal migration across the English Channel has become emblematic of the poor state of UK-French relations. The context to this very visible challenge that is becoming regular front page news in the UK, is of course a global displacement crisis with the numbers of people forced from their homes at a post-World War Two record. Small boats carrying people fleeing war or rushing towards a better future are increasingly making their way to the British coast. More than 17,000 migrants have arrived so far this year – more than double the number of crossings in 2020.

Preventing the crossings when these boats are at sea is difficult, expensive and dangerous. So much so that UK Border Force staff who enact Home Secretary’s Priti Patel’s plans to “push back” migrant boats in the Channel could be given immunity from conviction if a refugee dies, officials have confirmed. If you can’t stop the flow of illegal migration at sea then it is best done in France and the UK agreed a deal with Paris worth £54m to support their policing and prevention of boats going into the water. Yet the souring of relations has turned this issue into a political football with London accusing Paris of turning a blind eye to the issue and Paris claiming that the promised support hasn’t been forthcoming.

French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, has accused London of shirking their commitments claiming that “there is not a euro that has been paid by the British government following the deal - more or less - that we negotiated with Priti Patel. The English are people of honour, so I am certain that it is an accounting delay”.

Darmanin’s diplomacy is not being matched by his President Macron who is also furious as to the small number of fishing licenses being granted to the French fleet following Brexit. Supposedly a two-week deadline has been set by Paris for London to move on this and yet another flashpoint has been added to the growing amount of political kindling. Yet another upcoming issue is around the UK’s organisation of the upcoming Glasgow Cop26 conference. French officials have been critical of the UK signing trade deals with countries like Australia that haven’t taken into account the Paris climate change agreement.

Trade wars, military divisions and an absence of a joint political project currently typifies the souring of relations between Paris and London. Yet there is an obvious argument that all these issues could be flipped into areas of cooperation given the right level and type of political leadership. Whilst Macron and Johnson both remain in power however, it’s hard to see how the trajectory of relations will change.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,