March 5. 2024. 1:46

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The Brief — A cross-Channel bromance

The ‘renewed’ relationship between France and the UK is surprising if you look in the rear-view mirror. But it is first and foremost a personal relationship between two men, which will hopefully lead to steady appeasement.

Flashback: In 2019, the British press revealed that Boris Johnson (then foreign secretary) said that the French are “turds”, in a BBC documentary that was then censored and therefore never broadcast. “Excuse my French,” as the British would say.

Three years later, in 2022, then soon-to-be prime minister Liz Truss said she did not know if Emmanuel Macron is a “friend or foe”.

The mood on both sides of the Channel was tense, and relations sank to the lowest point in decades.

But improving those relations was not easy either. The main reason why it came about, apart from the obvious common interests that have always existed – even during the Johnson and Truss eras – could be the personal relationship between Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak.

It’s a relationship based on striking similarities between the two men, who, both sons of doctors, were once investment bankers. Sunak and Macron, at 42 and 45 respectively, each lead one of the only two nuclear powers on the Old Continent.

Macron has been in charge of France for much longer than Sunak – almost six years as opposed to Sunak’s four months – but both are trying to keep their ships steady in the face of strikes, protests and the weakening of their respective camps.

This rapprochement with a British conservative has led some to say that Macron, who came from the left and then moved to the ‘centre’, has now become more right-wing.

A bromance then? No doubt, the two men understand and appreciate each other. In the company of his “dear Rishi”, “Emmanuel” feels comfortable enough to make light banter when the English and French teams play each other on a football or rugby field.

But this relationship is far from selfless, politically at least. Without dwelling on migration issues – which are particularly flammable – both men badly need their counterparts from across the Channel.

Sunak, a newbie on the international scene, is demonstrating a new form of partnership with a powerful head of state and one of Europe’s leading lights. Brexit, a fiercely divisive issue both in the UK and in Europe, has perhaps not made everything go up in smoke.

Macron, for his part, needs Sunak to project a revamped image to his European allies and partners, and in turn to his own public opinion at home.

In wake of criticism by the Baltic countries, as well as Central and Eastern Europe, for his arguably ambiguous stance on the war in Ukraine or his relationship with Vladimir Putin, there is likely much to gain for Macron by showing allyship with the UK, which has been very vocal in its support for Ukraine.

European states may see this as an attempt for Macron to align with a stronger position on Ukraine and the French may feel less like they have a president who is contested internationally.

It is also an opportunity, as EURACTIV France reported last week, to send some discreet signals to Europeans.

On nuclear power, for example, this strategy was completely assumed: the Elysée Palace wants to use the new partnership on nuclear energy between France and the UK to shake up the EU and Germany on the importance of nuclear power in the decarbonisation of the economy.

At a time when fraught negotiations are taking place to include nuclear energy in the “strategic technologies” for the decarbonisation of the European industry, which has undergone several reversals if we are to believe the leaked drafts, this is probably the main message that Macron wanted to get across.

Not to mention the necessary vitality of economic exchange between the two countries – something both men, as pro-market liberals, are sensitive to.

Two large, albeit weakened, economies, two representatives of the world’s most ambitious diplomatic corps, two former colonial empires and two nuclear powers… it is in nobody’s interest, on either side of the Channel, to get along badly – and this agreement could even benefit Europeans.

Let’s hope it’s not just a matter of bromance, and that the relationship will endure beyond the office terms of the current leaders.

The Roundup

France has welcomed the European Commission’s proposal to overhaul the EU’s electricity market which was unveiled on Tuesday (14 March), as it offers France the chance to develop and refurbish its nuclear fleet.

The European Commission has urged countries across the European Union to increase the deportation of failed asylum seekers and mutually recognise migrant returns agreements in its latest step to improve control of the EU’s borders.

Kazakh authorities have impounded property of Russia’s main operator of spacecraft launching sites in Baikonur in the Central Asian nation’s southern region of Qyzylorda.

German industry reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 10% in 2022 compared to the previous year, enabling the country to stay in line with its overall emissions target despite additional emissions caused by an increased reliance on coal-fired power generation.

Don’t forget to check out our Health Brief for a roundup of weekly news on healthcare across Europe.

Look out for…

  • Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica receives former mayor of Incheon and president of Korean Democratic party Young-gil Song.
  • Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis receives Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
  • Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton receives Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) Fabiola Gianotti.
  • EU-Albania Stabilisation and Association Council meeting.
  • Environment Council meeting.