A New Franco-British Détente

March 14, 2023
3 min read
Photo credit: Salma Bashir Motiwala / Shutterstock.com

A new start and renewed ambition.” Those were the words that French President Emmanuel Macron used to describe the 36th Franco-British summit that took place in Paris last Friday. After more than five years of acute distrust and regular political fallouts, Paris and London finally look ready to bury the hatchet.

Although there were no major announcements, France and the United Kingdom have promised to increase support to Ukraine, coordinate their presence in the Indo-Pacific, and strengthen nuclear and industrial cooperation. Interestingly, their joint declaration also suggests that France would support British engagement in EU-led initiatives and defense projects. Such participation, if successful, could also be extended to other countries, such as the United States.

Time will tell whether this renewed ambition leads to any significant change in the relationship, but at least the two largest military powers in Europe are now talking. This is good news for the transatlantic relationship, especially if the United States turns its attention away from Europe and toward Asia.

A Display of Unity

Brexit, the trilateral AUKUS security pact, illegal crossings in the English Channel, and disputes about fishing quotas—it is hard to keep track of the disputes that London and Paris have had. In fact, relations were so bad that it took them five years to hold a summit that usually happens every one to two years.

In many ways, this summit was first about showing political unity and renewed trust. It also makes sense for the two nuclear powers in Europe to work together when war is raging on the European continent.

But there was also a more practical aspect to the meeting. Before Brexit, British and French officials met on the sidelines of EU meetings, often weekly. The regularity will now return, even if not at the same frequency. The two leaders agreed that their representatives would consult periodically on issues ranging from finance to cyber defense. They also vowed to widen cooperation in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and to strengthen joint nuclear research. The bonhomie should go some way to reducing the risk of diplomatic quarrels.

Of the announcements actually made, the most significant concerned illegal crossings of the English Channel. The UK government will give France £500 million over five years to try to stop migrants from making the perilous voyage in small boats. More than 40,000 people attempted that journey last year despite significantly increased French patrols of the coastline.

Regarding their militaries, Britain and France want greater integration and more interoperability. They will accelerate joint industrial projects, including the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon program. They have also agreed to talk more about China.

Unsurprisingly, another top priority was Ukraine, which Paris and London say they will support “for as long as it takes”. This will happen, in part, through joint training of Ukrainian soldiers and marines, presumably in cooperation with Poland, which is responsible for most current military training. France and the United Kingdom will also deliver more equipment and ammunition, though they did not specify quantities. They remain committed to “diplomacy” and to ensuring “accountability for the crimes committed by Russia”, an aspect especially important for France, which has been pushing for the creation of special tribunals.

There were few other concrete announcements. Some say that this is due to a lack of ambition and divergent priorities, but it is better to start small to rebuild trust.

Fast Forward

Relations between France and the United Kingdom feel markedly different. The EU is no longer taboo. Macron and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak get on. Not even AUKUS’s first meeting, happening this week in San Diego, emerged as a problem it once would have been.

Last week’s focus in Paris was rather on looking ahead, especially on defense strategies and spending, which both countries are reviewing. Finding bilateral synergies makes sense. It is the next summit, scheduled for 2024, therefore, that matters. By then it will be clear if this new Franco-British détente has had any bilateral, European, or global impact.