Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is aiming to reset relations with France when he meets President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Friday for a summit designed to showcase a cross-Channel entente cordiale after years of Brexit-related bickering.

The Anglo-French summit, the first of its kind since 2018, will address a broad range of issues, from the war in Ukraine and migrant sea crossings to inflation, nuclear arms control, energy security and defence cooperation. However, the main impact is expected to be symbolic, with the leaders of Europe’s two top military powers patching up their differences to display a common front at a time of global turmoil.

Mr Sunak’s visit comes after last week’s deal with the European Commission on the Northern Ireland protocol, settling the most intractable post-Brexit issue between the UK and the European Union. And it comes ahead of King Charles’s arrival in Paris on 26 March for the first state visit of his reign, another occasion that is seen as a sign that the two sides are turning a page in their relations.

It also comes in the wake of Mr Sunak’s controversial policy announced this week to criminalise asylum seekers arriving in Britain on small boats, a measure widely criticised as breaching the UK’s international obligations towards refugees. France is already cooperating with Britain on Channel policing measures, but Mr Macron is expected to ask for a hike in funding from the UK for any extra beach patrols.

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The summit marks a new era in Britain’s relations with France, which soured after the 2016 Brexit referendum. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson would regularly indulge in French-bashing, at one point referring to them as “turds”. When asked if Mr Macron was a “friend or foe”, Liz Truss, who was briefly Prime Minister last September and October, said, “the jury is out”.

Mr Sunak has taken a different tack, moving quickly to repair the ruptured relationship. After meeting in person for the first time at the United Nations COP27 climate change conference in Egypt last November, Mr Sunak tweeted a picture of them together, with a pointedly simple message that turned the page on Ms Truss’s equivocation: “Friends, partners, allies.”

Mr Macron and Mr Sunak’s brewing bromance reflects their characters. Both are former investment bankers – the President was at Rothschild while the Prime Minister worked with Goldman Sachs – and they understand finance and economics far better than most of their contemporaries. They are pragmatists – socially liberal, technologically savvy, and relatively centrist – in their mid-40s, who made history as the youngest leaders in their countries’ postwar history. They are short of stature and enjoy slim-cut tailored suits (and have both been photographed in hoodies).

The UK’s Ambassador to France, Menna Rawlings, has admitted that the mood has improved dramatically. “I genuinely feel we are in a much better place, for all sorts of reasons,” she said. “Among other things, the war in Ukraine has served to remind us all of our closeness as friends, allies and partners and that we do share values and interests.”

For Mr Sunak, the summit is also a chance to make a point on his government’s anti-immigration stance, as he urges Mr Macron to step up patrols and policing in the Channel. The two are expected to build on a bilateral deal reached in November that commits 900 French officers along the coast, although the financing has yet to be confirmed.

This arrangement has been struck despite the differences in perception over the crossings. London says the jump in small boat crossings, from 28,500 in 2021 to 45,000 last year, was in part due to lax French surveillance. However, Paris believes Britain is overreacting, pointing out that France received around three times as many asylum claims as the UK annually, while the EU as a whole is hosting around four million Ukrainian refugees. France also says that the UK’s move to close legal routes for asylum seekers to reach the UK has been a boon for the people smugglers with high-speed dinghies, who know how to ferry refugees past border controls.

And while Mr Sunak’s crackdown on Channel migrant crossings is broadly seen in Paris and Brussels as a domestic UK issue, Mr Macron is likely to share the view of EU Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, who said on Wednesday that the measure appears to violate international law.

Peter Ricketts, a former British Ambassador to France, says the UK’s political focus will be on the small boats issue. “But the real message should be Europe’s two main military powers united on supporting Ukraine and working together on the implications for European security,” he said.

Indeed, Ukraine is one of the key factors bringing together the two – Europe’s leading powers in Nato, with significant force projection capability, and major roles in ensuring the West’s emphatic response to Russia’s invasion last year.

In Paris, the leaders will discuss the next steps in their efforts to support Ukraine, as well as how to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to resume participation in the New START nuclear treaty on intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Also on the agenda are plans to jointly develop a new fighter jet, their FC/ASW missile programme, and the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), a British-French military force of 10,000 personnel. These defence initiatives, according to Chatham House fellow Alice Billon-Galland, co-author of the report, Rebooting the Entente, could offer the most fruitful opportunities for Franco-British cooperation.

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