Four centuries ago, the poet Philip Sidney put his finger on the constant ambivalence in the UK-French relationship when he referred to “that sweet enemy, France”. There is not much sweetness right now. In fact, relations are the worst I have known them in my 40 years as a diplomat.
How have things got so bad? The way Brexit was handled has played a large part in unsettling what had been a close partnership. In particular, Boris Johnson’s handling of the Northern Ireland protocol left the impression in Paris that the Prime Minister had either not understood its terms or never intended to implement them. Since then, the aftershocks of Brexit have continued to get in the way of efforts to promote “Global Britain”. Most of them have involved London and Paris, whether it was the Johnson/Macron spat at the Cornwall G7 summit over sausages for Northern Ireland, or the war of words over fishing licences that was the backdrop to the Cop26 climate summit.
The Aukus defence deal announced in September left the French feeling humiliated because London and Washington, DC, two of their closest allies, had been negotiating behind their backs for six months with Australia to wrest a submarine deal from them, scuppering a Paris-Canberra alliance. What happened next was revealing. Joe Biden understood the problem, rang the French president Emmanuel Macron to apologise for the handling, and sent his top advisers hot-foot to Paris to mend fences. From Boris Johnson, all the French got was mockery (“donnez-moi un break”).
The result of all this is the total collapse of trust on the part of France in Johnson and his government. That is very evident in the handling of the crisis over small boat crossings of the English Channel.
For months, Home Secretary Priti Patel and her French counterpart Gérald Darmanin have been sniping at each other in public. The awful loss of 27 lives when a boat capsized on 24 November should have been a moment for leaders in London and Paris to put aside the politics and concentrate on stepping up their cooperation to prevent further tragedies. But Johnson’s open letter to Macron on 25 November has made matters worse.
The French were never going to accept a blanket commitment to take back so-called “illegal migrants”. Some of the ideas raised in the letter could have been a basis for discussion, particularly joint patrols on French beaches. But it should also have included proposals for the UK to share the burden, for example by setting up a processing centre in France, allowing those with a well-founded asylum claim to come to the UK in safety.
The British proposals should have been discussed quietly with France and then taken by Patel to the meeting of European ministers in Paris on 28 November before being made public. Instead, Macron saw Johnson’s letter for the first time on Twitter. Hence his withering public comment about the need to be serious. For all that, it was an error by Paris to disinvite Patel from the multilateral meeting, which will as a result be less useful in coming up with practical solutions to stop the murderous traffic in human lives.
It is heartbreaking to see how far relations between London and Paris have deteriorated. Europe’s two global powers, with all the interests and experience we share, must do better than this. Where do we begin? The British media was briefed recently that London is preparing an ambitious new defence treaty with France, going well beyond the 2010 Lancaster House treaties. But international relations don’t work like that. New treaties can’t be conjured out of the air. They can only be built on trust that each side will work together in good faith and respect its commitments.
The migrant crisis is now central to rebuilding the relationship. There are no easy answers. But the lives of many vulnerable people depend on getting this right. So both sides need to dial down the rhetoric, stop the blame game and be willing to look at any proposal, even if politically difficult, which will reduce the appalling toll of deaths in the Channel. Working together to tackle this crisis will create the positive dynamic we so urgently need.