World News

Britain and France Discuss Deals to Limit Brexit Fallout

Posted January 18, 2018 1:58 p.m. EST

LONDON — President Emmanuel Macron of France arrived in Britain on Thursday for discussions with Prime Minister Theresa May on security, defense and cultural links, as the two nations sought to protect critical areas of cooperation from the inevitable fallout as the British withdraw from the European Union.

Anglo-French summits are regular events, but with Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union in March next year, this one has a special sensitivity. 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 was expected to announce 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.

Among other initiatives, May’s office said that three British military helicopters would support French operations against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel region of Africa, and that France would commit troops to a British-led NATO battle group in Estonia — one of four such groups deployed to Eastern Europe — in 2019.

May was also expected to agree 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. The money is likely to be spent on fencing, CCTV and infrared detection technology.

That payment has rankled some members of May’s Conservative Party, but may not go far enough for French officials, who are pressing Britain to admit more migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors. During his election campaign, Macron suggested renegotiating or scrapping the 2003 Le Touquet agreement, which established British border controls in Calais, but he has not raised the issue as bluntly lately.

Thursday’s agreements are likely to be used by May to illustrate 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 really needs — help in securing a favorable post-Brexit trade deal with the EU — Macron is unlikely to offer much, if anything.

“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 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.”

“Today, in the Franco-British relationship, there is a little bit of uncertainty about how they will evolve. Post-Brexit, there’s uncertainty about how to work with them, how to cooperate.”

Thursday’s summit 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 both 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. Just last week he canceled plans to attend the opening of the new U.S. embassy in London, facing the prospect of mass 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 is also hoping for a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. As similarly sized neighbors with colonial histories, Britain and France have a long history of 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.

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.”