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Macron and Sunak renew ties at first France-U.K. summit in five years

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walk out of the Élysée Palace in Paris on Friday. (Yoan Valat/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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PARIS — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday put on a display of British-French bonhomie not seen in years, with both leaders using phrases like “new beginnings.”

“Mon ami,” Sunak said to his counterpart at the first Anglo-French summit in five years. The apparent chumminess between the two leaders — or bromance, as many are calling it — was a clear departure from the strained relations between their countries since the 2016 Brexit vote.

Britain and France have been engaged in bitter diplomatic battles over immigrants, submarine contracts and fishing rights. At one point they each deployed gunboats as part of an ugly spat over shellfish. Liz Truss, Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, memorably said that the “jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or a foe.

But since Sunak came into office in October, many in Britain have hoped he might be able to calm the waters. 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 heated public resistance in the form of protests and strikes.

A new bromance? Sunak prompts hopes for improved France-U.K. ties.

The resumption of the bilateral summit — which in better times used to be an annual event — was the first sign of an effort to reset relations.

When they met in Paris, 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.” Macron tweeted: “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.”

Later this month, King Charles III will travel to France and Germany for the first state visit of his kingship.

The British overtures have been welcomed in Europe. In an editorial in the lead-up to the summit, France’s Le Monde newspaper called on the two countries to overcome “the post-Brexit guerrilla warfare” and 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.

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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 that his government would contribute $580 million to France over the next three years to help block such crossings. The money would help fund a new detention center in northern France, more officers to patrol French beaches and new technology, including drones.

Those steps, said Macron, show “awareness of the shared nature of our responsibility.”

The plan builds on a similar agreement in November, when London agreed to pay Paris $76 million for more measures on the beaches in northern France.

“The leaders took what the two machines had prepared for them, and probably pushed it a bit further,” said Peter Ricketts, Britain’s ambassador to France between 2012 and 2016, who attended Friday’s summit as the co-chair of the Franco-British Council.

“I think this is a day where we really have moved on from the scratchiness and difficulty of the last couple of years, not just because two men were more compatible in style, but also against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine,” he said.

But Ricketts cautioned that “there is clearly a risk that if there is no improvement in the number of arrivals later in the year — as the weather is good and people begin to arrive more — that will obviously create further tensions.” Ricketts added that Macron also does not want “anything to do” with Sunak’s controversial proposals to return asylum seekers.

Earlier this week, Sunak’s government — which is trailing badly in the polls — proposed sending almost all asylum seekers arriving on small boats to their home country or to a “safe third country.” The United Nations’ refugee agency said it is “very concerned” about the legality of the proposal.

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“The key message today was ambition,” said Georgina Wright, the director of the Paris-based Montaigne Institute’s Europe Program. “The next summit will be actual reality — what has been achieved?”

Among the key questions over the next months will be how much France and Britain are willing to commit to defense spending, and to what extent the new migration measures can deter Channel crossings.

“I’m not convinced that throwing more money at it will necessarily resolve it,” Wright said.

Even with enhanced coastline security, there’s no guarantee that the 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.”

Karla Adam reported from London.