In recent years, the two sides have sparred over post-Brexit issues including fishing rights and the submarine deal with the United States and Australia that cut out France. In better times, the summit used to be an annual event.
There are clear signs that both sides are keen to reset relations. Later this month, King Charles III will travel to France and Germany for the first state visit of his kingship in what is seen to be an effort to bolster relations with European partners in the post-Brexit era.
With high inflation and economic concerns worrying leaders on both sides of the English Channel, the recent British overtures have been welcomed in Europe. In an editorial in the lead-up up to the summit, France’s Le Monde newspaper called on the two countries to overcome “the post-Brexit guerrilla warfare” and to turn toward “a peaceful adult relationship” — an unsubtle reference to the often childish digs at France employed by some of Sunak’s predecessors and the embittered French retorts.
At the top of the British agenda is the issue of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats, which has risen sharply in recent years. In 2022, more than 45,000 migrants made the crossing, many on flimsy dinghies, an increase of more than 60 percent from the previous year.
Standing next to Macron at a news conference in Paris, Sunak on Friday announced the United Kingdom would contribute $580 million to France over the next three years to help curb such crossings. This will help fund a new detention center in northern France, more officers to help patrol the French beaches and new technology, including drones.
Those steps, said Macron, show “awareness of the shared nature of our responsibility.”
Stopping the boat crossings is a top priority for Sunak ahead of the next general election, which must happen before January 2025. Earlier this week, his government, which is trailing badly in the polls, unveiled new proposals where almost all asylum seekers arriving on small boats would be returned either to their home country or to a “safe third country.” The United Nations’ refugee agency has said it is “very concerned” about the legality of the proposals.
It’s unclear how that policy would work and what specific countries would accept the migrants. The U.K. last year announced it would send some migrants to Rwanda, but with the plans being challenged in the courts, none have made the trip so far.
But even with enhanced coastline security, there’s no guarantee that number of crossings will go down, said Sarah Wolff, a migration and E.U. politics expert at Queen Mary University. “If migrants want to find a way, they will find a way,” she said. Wolff said that the U.K. needed to look at “working with civil society” and “legal ways to come to the U.K.” and not just pursue measures that are “important for reelection.”
Britain and France did not announce any returns agreement at the Friday news conference.
Much ink has been spilled about the similarities between Sunak and Macron — their investment banking background, their center-right outlook, their height. They are also both facing protests on the streets and strikes.
“Welcome to Paris,” Macron wrote on Twitter on Friday, as the summit was underway. “The destinies of the United Kingdom and France are linked. Our challenges are shared. Conservation of our planet, support for Ukraine, security and energy cooperation: together we are making progress,” he added.
When the two met in Paris on Friday, they shook hands and placed their arms on each other’s backs. Sunak tweeted a picture of the two and wrote: “Close neighbours. Great friends. Historic allies. It’s great to be in Paris.”
Things were more chilly with his predecessors. Liz Truss, Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, memorably said that the “jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or a foe. Her predecessor, Boris Johnson, reportedly called the French “turds” to describe their approach to Brexit negotiations, although he later said he had no recollection of using that term.
The enhanced security plans announced on Friday build on a similar agreement in November where London agreed to pay Paris $76 million for more measures on the beaches in northern France.
Sunak and Macron also discussed the war in Ukraine, nuclear and defense cooperation, relations with China and climate change.