A Franco-British summit is due to be held on 10 March between UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron. Ahead of the meeting, Sarah Wolff, Pierre Haroche, and Christian Turner set out some key principles for establishing a more ambitious relationship between the UK and France.
The piece was originally published on the 'EUROPP – European Politics and Policy' blog.
"French president Emmanuel Macron, left, and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak. The relationship between France and Britain has been fraught in recent years" © Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
Following the adoption of the Windsor Framework, the upcoming Franco-British summit on 10 March bodes well. New leaders are in charge and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine provides an urgency to act as European security providers.
While after Brexit both countries have rushed competitively to sign bilateral agreements with their European neighbours, we have now moved beyond the tense AUKUS incident – the 2021 defence agreement between the US, the UK and Australia that left France relatively isolated. Yet, to remain relevant in a contested liberal world order, as well as after Brexit and a pandemic, the global ambition of the Franco-British relationship requires a serious upgrade.
The upcoming Franco-British summit needs to have a global ambition in a world that is increasingly fragmented. To remain relevant in the Indo-pacific or Africa, London and Paris must reinvent the terms of an ambitious bilateral relationship that is less remote from local and global challenges.
Over twelve years have passed since the 2010 Lancaster House agreement and five since the 35th summit at Sandhurst in 2018. We argue that a serious reset is now needed on a series of issues. While defence and energy are key, a strong effort to catch up on new technologies such as artificial intelligence is also required. The bilateral relationship should also be framed within a global context and aim at countering Russia in Africa and providing security in the Indo-Pacific, capitalising on both countries’ strengths.
In the current context of war, the success of the 10 March summit will not only be judged from a diplomatic point of view, but also by whether it sends a strategic signal, to which Russia will pay close attention.
On the one hand, London is playing a vanguard role in weapon delivery to Kyiv, which was confirmed by the recent decision to send Challenger 2 battle tanks. On the other hand, Paris seeks to play a leading role in the EU’s Ukraine policy, as shown during President Macron’s visit to Kyiv on 16 June 2022, when he announced his support for Ukraine’s EU membership application along with the German, Italian and Romanian leaders.
President Zelensky’s double visit on 8 February to London and Paris is symbolic of this dual leadership. A Franco-British initiative towards Ukraine would thus have a strong symbolic impact. The two countries should set up a joint training mission for Ukrainian soldiers, which could be conducted in Tapa, Estonia, where British and French forces are integrated in the same multinational NATO battlegroup. The presence of this mission on the eastern flank, close to the Russian border, would reinforce its strategic significance.
The Great Lakes region of Africa was at the heart of the first EU Common Security and Defence Policy missions led by the Brits and the French, as exemplified by the Saint-Malo declaration. However, today, Africa is not a military priority anymore. France recently ended ten years of counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel, even though violence continues to increase. China, Russia and South Africa have since held trilateral naval exercises off the coast of Africa in February 2023, while Wagner mercenaries are protecting illiberal African regimes and getting access to 30% of the world reserves of essential minerals.
In this context, a joint Franco-British diplomatic initiative articulating a common front against the allegedly anti-imperialist narratives developed by Russia would be welcome. The recent accession of Gabon and Togo, two French-speaking countries, to the Commonwealth, can be seen as a sign of the progressive breaking down of barriers between French and English-speaking African countries. Fighting disinformation and Russia’s narratives in the media and online could bring strategic gains. Launching an initiative with African civil society partners to fight disinformation would help France and the UK to fix the narrative of their foreign policy.
In the Indo-Pacific, France and the UK are the leading European partners able to project military power. The UK is a close partner to Taipei, both countries are close partners with Japan, and like France it has made a clear shift toward the Indo-Pacific in its 2021 integrated review. France protects 1.6 million French citizens in overseas territories and maintains about 7,000 troops in the region with some permanently based in New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and the Indian Ocean, but also with regular nuclear submarine missions. The presence of bases in Djibouti and the UAE is also an asset.
In order to boost confidence and synergies, France and the UK could jointly express their interest in British participation in the EU Coordinated Maritime Presence in the North-Western Indian Ocean, which promotes cooperation and information-sharing among European naval assets. This experience could pave the way for joint initiatives further east, i.e. in Singapore where the UK has a naval facility; especially given China’s lurking eyes on Taiwan.
While the UK is keen to tackle the ‘small boats’ issue and to work hand in hand with Paris to break down smuggling, it is doubtful whether the externalisation of asylum seeker procedures to Rwanda is going to solve the issue. A reflection on migration across the Channel as well as more globally would be useful.
This strategy should address the disruption of mobilities in the Channel that has become a site of queues and frustration among ‘citizens’ and ‘denizens’ at the border. More globally, London and Paris should work on stopping deaths at sea, managing ethically the processing of asylum requests, working with transnational civil society, and demonstrating joint leadership on responsible governance of migration in the Channel.
Technological challenges including (civilian) digital technologies are also very different from what they were in 2010, at the time of the Lancaster House agreements. Developments have taken place such as the US-EU Trade and Technology Council. The ‘Quad’ comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US is also importantly undergoing a tech focus on innovative technologies while France and the UK have not yet addressed that issue.
There are nonetheless a multitude of areas from space assets, sea cables, space security awareness, joint surveillance, and the protection of critical infrastructure where more could be done, involving also French and British universities. Yet, commitments to work on artificial intelligence and the tech sector require an important update given the rapid technological developments of the past five years.
The UK will hold the fourth summit of the European Political Community (EPC), by which time the overall direction of this bloc of (currently) 44 countries should begin to take shape. France, as its instigator, sees the EPC as a way to pursue geopolitical objectives in Europe beyond the EU’s borders. The UK, for its part, appreciates its informal and flexible nature, whilst the EPC allows it to regain a seat at the European table post-Brexit.
However, the EPC will need to develop if it is to serve a purpose and the London-Paris relationship will be key here. Areas of focus could include European security risks related to Russia and China’s destabilisation efforts, such as in Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkans. The upcoming EPC summit in Chișinău in June is a key opportunity for the two governments to work together to help shape its developments, especially as the EPC requires leadership at this nascent stage.
The Franco-British relationship in many ways remains strong. Even as challenges arise with the potential to slow or even stall progress, the friendship between the two countries ultimately endures, as we are reminded by the 120-year anniversary of the Entente Cordiale in 2024.
The world has nevertheless changed since the age of empires. The bonds of history will only grow with the passage of time and the challenges of an increasingly unstable world order requires close cooperation between these two key European powers.
One of the key parameters of the health of the relationship remains the EU. Although ad-hoc and bilateral cooperation is working well in the field of nuclear civil energy for instance, any major negotiation in the field of tech, trade or fisheries is linked to the UK maintaining good relations with the EU, as well as to the EU’s trade and personal data regulations, as demonstrated by the Windsor Framework.
The issues in this article were at the heart of the networking and research activities of the Bayeux Franco-British Network, an initiative launched on 25 January at the Center for European Research at Queen Mary University of London in Paris and the EUIUK Forum. Gathering academics, diplomats and think tankers, the network provides an informal venue for frank and open discussions and acts as a laboratory for ideas, scientific excellence and diplomatic understanding.