Sunak and Macron hail ‘new chapter’ in UK-France ties

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PARIS — Vegetarian sushi and rugby brought the leaders of Britain and France together after years of Brexit rows.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday held the two countries’ first bilateral summit in five years, amid warm words and wishes for closer post-Brexit cooperation.

“This is an exceptional summit, a moment of reunion and reconnection, that illustrates that we want to better speak to each other,” Macron told a joint press conference afterward. “We have the will to work together in a Europe that has new responsibilities.”

Most notably from London’s perspective, the pair agreed a new multi-annual financial framework to jointly tackle the arrival of undocumented migrants on small boats through the English Channel — in part funding a new detention center in France.

“The U.K. and France share a special bond and a special responsibility,” Sunak said. “When the security of our Continent is threatened, we will always be at the forefront of its defense.”

Macron congratulated Sunak for agreeing the Windsor Framework with the European Commission, putting an end to a long U.K.-EU row over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, and stressing it marks a “new beginning of working more closely with the EU.”

“I feel very fortunate to be serving alongside you and incredibly excited about the future we can build together. Merci mon ami,” Sunak said.

It has been many years since the leaders of Britain and France were so publicly at ease with each other.

Sunak and Macron bonded over rugby, ahead of Saturday’s match between England and France, and exchanged T-shirts signed by their respective teams.

Later, they met alone at the Élysée Palace for more than an hour, only being joined by their chiefs of staff at the very end of the meeting, described as “warm and productive” by Sunak’s official spokesman. The pair, who spoke English, had planned to hold a shorter one-to-one session, but they decided to extend it, the spokesman said.

They later met with their respective ministers for a lunch comprising vegetarian sushi, turbot, artichokes and praline tart.

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Macron congratulated Sunak for agreeing the Windsor Framework with the European Commission | Christophe Archambault/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking on the Eurostar en route to Paris, Sunak told reporters this was the beginning of a “new chapter” in the Franco-British relationship.

“It’s been great to get to know Emmanuel over the last two months. There’s a shared desire to strengthen the relationship,” he said. “I really believe that the range of things that we can do together is quite significant.”

In a show of goodwill from the French, who pushed energetically for a hard line during Brexit talks, Macron said he wanted to “fix the consequences of Brexit” and opened the door to closer cooperation with the Brits in the future.

“It’s my wish and it’s in our interests to have closest possible alliance. It will depend on our commitment and willingness but I am sure we will do it,” he said alongside Sunak.             

Tackling small boats

Under the terms of the new migration deal, Britain will pay €141 million to France in 2023-24, €191 million in 2024-25 and €209 million in 2025-26.

This money will come in installments and go toward funding a new detention center in France, a new Franco-British command centre, an extra 500 law enforcement officers on French beaches and better technology to patrol them, including more drones and surveillance aircraft.

The new detention center, located in the Dunkirk area, would be funded by the British and run by the French and help compensate for the lack of space in other detention centers in northern France, according to one of Macron’s aides.

According to U.K. and French officials, France is expected to contribute significantly more funding — up to five times the amount the British are contributing — toward the plan although the Elysée has refused to give exact figures.

A new, permanent French mobile policing unit will join the efforts to tackle small boats. This work will be overseen by a new zonal coordination center, where U.K. liaison officers will be permanently based working with French counterparts.

Sunak stressed U.K.-French cooperation on small boats since November has made a significant difference, and defended the decision to hand more British money to France to help patrol the French northern shores. Irregular migration, he stressed, is a “joint problem.”

Ukraine unity

Sunak and Macron also made a show of unity on the war in Ukraine, agreeing that their priority would be to continue to support the country in its war against Russian aggression.

The French president said the “ambition short-term is to help Ukraine to resist and to build counter-offensives.”

“The priority is military,” he said. “We want a lasting peace, when Ukraine wants it and in the conditions that it wants and our will is to put it in position to do so.”

The West’s top priority should remain helping Ukrainians achieve “a decisive battlefield advantage” that later allows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to sit down at the negotiating table with Russian President Vladimir Putin from a stronger position, Sunak said en route to the summit.

“That should be everyone’s focus,” he added. “Of course, this will end as all conflicts do, at the negotiating table. But that’s a decision for Ukraine to make. And what we need to do is put them in the best possible place to have those talks at an appropriate moment that makes sense for them.”

The two leaders also announced they would start joint training operations of Ukrainian marines.

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( With inputs from : )

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