World News

Britain and France Agree on Deals to Limit Brexit Fallout

Posted January 18, 2018 6:34 p.m. EST

LONDON — Agreements on defense, security and the treatment of migrants were reached by President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain on Thursday, as the two leaders sought to protect critical areas of cooperation while Britain prepares to withdraw from the European Union.

Anglo-French summit meetings are regular events, but with Britain’s scheduled departure from the bloc in March next year, this one has a particular resonance. The British withdrawal, known as Brexit, will bring to an end more than four decades of European integration, and 2018 will see tough negotiations on the future trading relationship between Britain and the remaining 27 nations of the bloc — talks in which France will wield considerable influence.

In a significant goodwill gesture, Macron announced that the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman Conquest of England, would be lent to Britain for display, allowing it to leave France for the first time in 950 years. That, Macron told a news conference, was part of an effort to deepen cultural ties and help the two nations make “a new tapestry together,” even as Brexit introduces new uncertainty into their relationship.

May agreed to pay an additional $62 million to help reinforce security around the French port city of Calais, which has been a gathering point for migrants seeking to enter Britain. That money will be spent on fencing, CCTV cameras and infrared detection technology.

The payment has rankled some members of May’s Conservative Party, who believe costs should be borne by France. But May defended the policy on Thursday, saying it was in Britain’s “national interest” to secure one of its frontiers.

During his election campaign, Macron suggested renegotiating or scrapping the 2003 Le Touquet agreement that established British border controls in Calais, but that question has receded for now. On Thursday the two leaders reached an additional accord that aims to reduce the time spent by migrants in Calais, particularly unaccompanied minors. Britain is under pressure to accept more of them, though May’s statement made no mention of the numbers that could be admitted.

Underscoring the importance of defense cooperation, Thursday’s meeting was held at the Sandhurst military academy, and May said that three British military helicopters would support French operations against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel region of Africa. France would commit troops to a British-led NATO force in Estonia — one of four such groups deployed to Eastern Europe — in 2019, she said.

Welcoming the agreements, May said they illustrated her argument that Britain “may be leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.” For Macron, cooperation on defense with Britain — Western Europe’s only other significant military power — is important to bolster the credibility of European foreign policy. For both sides, anti-terrorism and intelligence cooperation is vital.

Yet analysts say there is a limited area of common interest, and even that is shrinking because of Brexit. May’s hopes of achieving a favorable trade deal with the European Union have so far won little sympathy in France, which is keen to lure banks and other businesses from Britain.

Paris has already won the right to host the bloc’s banking authority, which will move from London. In recent months the mayor of the struggling northern French city of Lille and the presidents of two French regions, Hauts-de-France and Île de France, have traveled to London to promote the advantages of moving to France, according to the French newspaper Le Monde.

With May leading a weak and divided government that is preoccupied by Brexit, and with Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, still trying to assemble a new coalition government, Macron has emerged as Europe’s leading political player on the international stage.

Moreover, Macron has branded himself as a centrist pro-European, a fierce opponent of the populist right and a critic of many of the ideas behind Brexit, May’s defining political objective.

That means that on the one thing May needs most — help in securing a favorable post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union — Macron made no concessions. He said his aim was “neither to punish nor reward” Britain’s decision to quit the bloc. And, asked about access to Europe’s single market for Britain’s financial services, Macron said, “Be my guest” — while adding pointedly that this would require accepting single-market rules that May has rejected. “Macron is part of a generation that has a sort of indifference to the United Kingdom,” said Vivien Pertusot, an expert on Franco-British relations at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales, a research organization. “He’s young. He hasn’t known the fraternity and rivalry that animated relations for an earlier generation.”

Macron has rarely mentioned Britain in speeches. Despite the various initiatives discussed on Thursday, Pertusot said, “There’s a sort of distance in Franco-British relations, and a desire to re-center relations around the Franco-German partnership.”

Thursday’s summit meeting, which began with lunch in an upscale pub, was Macron’s first visit to Britain since his election. But in the meantime the French president has managed his international diplomacy with aplomb, hosting successful meetings with President Donald Trump and with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Trump, by contrast, who last winter accepted an invitation for a state visit to Britain, still has not set a date. Last week he canceled plans to attend the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in London, facing the prospect of protests. The lack of a visit by Trump is a growing embarrassment for a British government that not only prides itself on its “special relationship” with Washington, but also hopes for a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. As close neighbors with interlinked histories, Britain and France have a long-running rivalry. While there was genuine excitement about the likely loan of the Bayeux Tapestry, there were also some less positive reactions ahead of the summit meeting.

The right-leaning Daily Telegraph expressed concerns that Britain would be “seduced” by the French president, and the pro-Brexit Sun newspaper published a reimagined Bayeux Tapestry — renamed the BYE-EU Tapestry — in which “Brexit frees us from continental shackles.”