Rarely have France and Britain prospered concurrently. From the Normans to Napoleon, France and Britain have traded global influence for centuries. Not much has changed aside from the scale of the power. The rhetoric was largely one of forced conviviality at Sandhurst, UK, when Macron met May, but it was evident which of the two holds the upper hand in the relationship.
The Bayeux Tapestry, as a stitched depiction of a gruesome English defeat, could not have been a more fitting a gesture from President Macron to Prime Minister Theresa May.
Lauded, much like the bizarre blue passport celebrations, as a miscalculated victory for neo-nationalism, it’s quite difficult to fathom precisely how and why May’s team tried to spin this “very significant” loan of an 11th Century artefact into a Brexit negotiating triumph. That said, neither is it surprising. There has been little to cheer of late.
A showing of distant solidarity
The UK-France summit focused on entente cordiale, and the shared interests between the fifth and sixth-largest world economies. The very phrase implies respect (but not too much) and aid only when it is needed.
De Gaulle is a symbol of this frictional partnership. Granted protection in London during the Second World War, he clashed with Churchill and eventually went on to veto the UK’s proposed accession to the European Economic Community in 1967.
Britain is banging on Europe’s door for a very different reason in 2018. Macron was all smiles in Sandhurst, beaming in agreement alongside May as she heralded the “uniquely close relationship” between France and Britain.
But the Jupiterian President has more of de Gaulle’s ‘France first’ sentiment than Hollande, and perhaps more substance than Sarkozy. Though appearing friendly, he will not hesitate to ignore Britain if it does not fit into his vision of Europe.
While the subject of Brexit was largely avoided, it is never far away. The French President asserted that Britain cannot expect to “have its cake and eat it” or as the French say, “have both the butter and the money for the butter”.
In short, beyond the charm, Macron will undoubtedly remain steadfast on the notion that Britain cannot cherry-pick single market access without accepting the rest of the bloc’s rules. It’s either Canada or full integration. “Be my guest,” he added to indicate that the door is open, but the UK must adhere to “the single market and its coherence”.
It certainly feels as if the 40-year-old President is king for the time being and the dominant presence in Europe in the absence of a clear direction in Germany. “The choice is on the British side, not on my side. But there can be no differentiated access for the financial services,” he said.
Much like de Gaulle, Macron appears wholly unafraid of vocally holding a position in the name of French interests. If the UK were to lose out by the clear lack of volition in Europe to offer a bespoke deal for the City, then so be it, he seemed to say.
Thus far, the French President has avoided “aggressive language” on Brexit, but his tone remained firm and unforgiving. Though he both “respects” and “regrets” Brexit in that it will have negative consequences for both countries and Europe as a whole, there is no doubt that Macron believes it presents Paris with an opportunity to the detriment of London.
The military partnership reinforced in Calais
The summit revealed that the military partnership between the two nations is one thing that will remain. Prime Minister May highlighted the suffering caused by Jihadist attacks on both sides of the channel over the past few years and there’s an evident requirement for a coherent approach to security.
As a result, agreements were made that Britain will support French anti-terrorist operations in Mali, while France plans to send troops to join a UK-led group in Estonia.
Ultimately, the headline-maker however, was the Sandhurst treaty. Theresa May pledged the well-quoted figure of £44.5m that will be added to the Channel border security in Calais in an attempt to prevent another camp from forming.
Both parties stated that they remain loyal to the Le Touquet agreement which ensures that British border checks are carried out in France, and vice versa.
President Macron here on Thursday (at Sandhurst) for Franco-British Council. Key point for him: Brexit not a done deal. Mrs May not in control of events (or even Parliament & her own Govt!) Our European partners need to work on credible assumption that we are staying in EU
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) January 16, 2018
The Sandhurst treaty, the first joint treaty on the Calais border in 15 years – would “enable us to improve the relationship and the management of the joint border”, supposedly reducing the time taken to process migrants and citing common interests from the point of view of security.
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson revealed proposals for a 22-mile bridge across the Channel to ease congestion, labelled as an “ego trip” in the Guardian. His previously plans include the £60m Emirates Air Line cable car, an airport built in the Thames estuary and a garden bridge in west London.
The entente still cordiale
When May met Macron for the first state visit to the UK of the French President, it was evident that France senses an opportunity to lead while Britain remains tentative and confused. Brandishing gifts continuing his tendency towards “gesture diplomacy”, Macron was commanding and efficient, clear and inflexible. May had little clarity to give.
Nevertheless, Britain and France remain reluctant partners with many shared challenges such as that regarding immigration, security and trade. “We are making a new tapestry together,” Macron said to Sandhurst, a symbol of British military prowess. The entente remains cordiale, but the new tapestry, much like that of the Bayeux hand stitched almost 1,000 years previous, could well be on French terms.