PARIS (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met Friday in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron in efforts to mend relations following post-Brexit tensions, as well as improving military and business ties and toughening efforts against Channel migrant crossings.
Both leaders shook hands and briefly posed for photographers, smiling, as Sunak arrived at the presidential palace.
The French-British summit, the first since 2018, is set to show a “new chapter” is opening in relations between the two countries, according to Macron's office. Such an event was previously held almost every year.
Relations between the U.K. and France chilled amid post-Brexit wrangling over fishing rights and other issues, and hit rock-bottom under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took delight in needling the French. His successor, Liz Truss, ruffled French feathers last year when she said the “jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or a foe.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought Britain and its European neighbors closer together in support of Kyiv, and the mood improved after pragmatic, technocratic Sunak took office in October after Truss’ brief and economically destabilizing term.
Sunak's visit also comes two weeks before King Charles III travels to France and then Germany for his first state visits since becoming monarch, in further British efforts to build bridges with European neighbors.
”The summit will be above all an opportunity to reaffirm and deepen the close cooperation in terms of military support for Ukraine," according to the statement from Macron's Elysee Palace, as both countries are the only nuclear powers in the region.
A delegation of seven senior ministers from each country are participating in the summit, including those responsible for foreign affairs, defense and domestic issues.
France and the U.K. plan to strengthen military cooperation, including on supplying weapons to Kyiv and training Ukrainian Marines.
Sunak said before the meeting that he and Macron would have talks about the West’s attitude to China, a country the French leader is due to visit next month. Speaking about Beijing’s stance on the war in Ukraine, he said “we’d urge all countries not to be providing support to Russia, or trying to circumvent sanctions.”
Sunak and Macron also will discuss ”establishing the backbone to a permanent European maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific” by coordinating deployment to the region of France’s Charles de Gaulle and the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales aircraft carriers, according to the British government.
Last month the U.K. and the EU announced a breakthrough in talks to resolve the dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. Britain also has cautiously welcomed Macron’s proposal for a European Political Community, a new forum aimed at boosting security and prosperity across the continent. Launched in October, it brings together existing EU members, aspiring partners in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, as well as Britain and Turkey.
Sunak seeks closer cooperation on measures to stop thousands of migrants crossing the Channel from France to England.
The U.K. and France signed an agreement in November to increase police patrols on beaches in northern France — with London agreeing to pay Paris 72.2 million euros in 2022-2023 — and Sunak hopes to cement further cooperation on Friday. tackling illegal migration.
Friday's talks will aim at “making the small boat route across the Channel unviable, save lives and dismantle organised crime groups while preventing illegal migration further upstream," according to Sunak's office.
Past efforts to beef up measures have failed. More than 45,000 people arrived in Britain by boat in 2022, up from 28,000 in 2021 according to British authorities' statistics.
On the French side, the Maritime Prefecture for the Channel and North Sea says the small-boat phenomenon has grown “in an exponential manner since 2016.” It counted last year one death on the French side and four in the British zone of operations.
The U.K. announced contentious plans this week to detain and deport people arriving by small boat, but almost no country has agreed to accept any deportees.
Nathalie Loiseau, a French member of the European Parliament who chairs its EU-U.K. Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, told the BBC that there was no prospect of France agreeing to take migrants back from Britain. “This is not on the table," she said, stressing that the issue is being handled at the European Union level and no bilateral agreement is possible.
Soon after the meeting in Paris, will come a reminder of an issue that angered France.
Sunak will fly to the United States for a meeting with President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese over a three-way defense deal struck in 2021 that saw Australia back out of an agreement to buy French submarines.
Jill Lawless reported from London. Elaine Ganley contributed to the story from Paris.