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Emmanuel Macron's visit to the UK reminds us of the strength of Anglo-French friendship, Brexit or no Brexit

It may seem futile for Macron to keep telling the UK that it is welcome to remain in the EU, but it is part of building up soft pressure on the British to see some sense before they inflict irrevocable harm on their own economy and that of our closest trading partners

Thursday 18 January 2018 19:09 GMT
France's President Emmanuel Macron and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrive at Sandhurst Military Academy
France's President Emmanuel Macron and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrive at Sandhurst Military Academy (Reuters)

Ever since Henry VIII met Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, great hopes have been invested in Anglo-French summits (and the occasional battle). Half a millennium on comes another cordial rendezvous, and at a critical historical juncture. How can these two countries, with so much in common, always friendly rivals but allies for more than a hundred years, preserve their mutually beneficial relations in the post-Brexit era? Can they even cooperate on the relatively banal issue of border controls?

Yes, would seem to be the answer. So far from being “le Stitch-Up”, as it has been styled in parts of the British press, the payment by the British government of some £44.5m on strengthening security at Calais is something of a bargain. It seems to have been conveniently forgotten, again in certain quarters, that, post-Brexit, the French would be perfectly entitled to argue that the border of the UK is no longer sited in a French city but along the famous White Cliffs of Dover, and, with that border too will the needs of refugees and economic migrants who wish to settle in Britain have to be catered for. Just as the border checks would move across the Channel, so inevitably what has become known, disparagingly, as “the jungle” would relocate too. In which case the cost of administering or containing such a transient population would most likely be far higher.

Nor is it some “concession” for the UK to agree to take more child refugees, and especially those with family ties to this country. We’re not bargaining here, in reality, at all; but merely fulfilling a moral and legal obligation to give shelter to refugees in certain circumstances. As has been noted many times, and bears repeating, it was precisely this attitude, though sometimes grudging, that saw many children fleeing certain death from Nazi Germany in 1938 on the Kindertransport. That is now an episode the British feel proud of, and they should remind themselves of it when considering the predicament the French authorities find themselves in.

That said, there is a limit to how much the British should be prepared to compensate Calais. The mayor, and other French politicians, argue rather convincingly that it is Britain’s lavish benefits system that acts as a magnet for so many. The reality, however, is more likely to be a simple matter of language skills and the likelihood of finding some kind of work on the British side of the Channel. It is also worth bearing in mind that Britain takes far fewer migrants, per capita, than nations such as Sweden, Germany or indeed France. Europe is not exporting its unwanted refugees against their will to the UK – they wish to come to Britain because it offers a better chance of a better life through hard work and enterprise. That, however, is not Britain’s “fault”, and the commitment to support infrastructure at Calais cannot be turned into an open-ended pledge to stabilise the Calais economy. If the position were reversed, say, and Dover were dealing with such an encampment, the UK would have no justification in asking for compensation for British shopkeepers, say, to use a suitably Napoleonic example.

Meeting symbolically at Sandhurst it is impressive, and encouraging, that so many representatives of the two nations’ security and armed forces are to break bread together. France and Britain have more in common in these fields than many others – membership of the UN Security Council, nuclear deterrents, and substantial service units readily deployable overseas. From Mali to Estonia the two countries’ armies are working harmoniously together, sometimes under the Nato umbrella, sometimes not, and in closer cooperation than at any time since 1940. That, at least, is a source of security and strength for both nations and, it has to be said, in practical terms a reason for at least considering the feasibility of a united European defence force.

Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May arrive at Sandhurst

President Macron is also, fairly obviously, pursuing the current European strategy of reminding the British that they can reverse Brexit if the reality turns out to be quite different from the chimera presented by the Leave campaign during the referendum. Mr Macron’s role is to do so with his typical charm and persuasiveness. It may seem a futile gesture today, but it is part of building up soft pressure on the British to see some sense before they inflict irrevocable harm on their own economy and that of our closest trading partners, such as France. It may yet succeed, as the gradually growing chatter about a referendum on any Brexit trade deal – the so-called “second referendum” – builds into political momentum.

The forthcoming loan of the Bayeux Tapestry is a reminder of how close our often so very different neighbour really is – close enough to once organise an invasion. Even on the most optimistic projections of growth in commerce with the likes of China and India, it would take many decades, if at all, for trade in goods and services with those far away places to match those of our wealthy, friendly cousins just a train ride, or even a swim, away across the Channel.

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