UPDATE (March 9, 2023): In advance of tomorrow's summit, Embassy sources told us that a number of issues of concern to Connexion readers, that we shared with the Ambassador during and following our interview, are believed to have been passed on to Mr Sunak's team.
President Macron will host UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on March 10 at the 36th bilateral summit, the first since 2018.
“This will be a great opportunity to renew the entente,” Dame Menna said.
“I’ve been in this job now for about 18 months and when I arrived, there were some quite serious difficulties in the relationship and a lot of tension around issues like borders and fish.
“I genuinely feel we are in a much better place, for all sorts of reasons.
Read more: France invites UK to summit on shared policy goals
Unified in support for Ukraine
“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.
“Standing together to support Ukraine is one of the most important things we’re doing and it has been really unifying.
“Committing to work even more closely on that is an important part of our objectives for the summit.”
She added: “Our relationship with France is one of our most important.
“France is our fifth-biggest trading partner and our fifth-biggest export market. And we have very close defence and security ties.
“This will be our prime minister’s second bilateral overseas visit after one to Ukraine. He’s still very new in his tenure so this speaks to the importance of the relationship.”
It is expected that Mr Sunak will bring other ministers, she said.
Read more: King Charles reportedly planning his first state visit to be to Paris
Issues affecting The Connexion readers
“I am involved in discussions as to how the summit is going to run and who is coming.
“The Embassy also feeds into the substance of the talks, to facilitate discussion between the Elysée and No 10 in terms of what should be on the agenda.”
Dame Menna said she would take on board suggestions from The Connexion about issues affecting our readers, especially if they are areas of French (not just EU) competence.
We suggested a simple online-only process for second-home owners renewing applications for a temporary long-stay visa for a six-month stay, or the possibility of a new kind of multi-year visa allowing regular extended stays to overseas owners of French property.
We also said it would help readers to make sure it is possible to contact prefectures in person not just online, and to ensure that, moving forward, French employers and benefits agencies, among others, are well-informed of Britons' Withdrawal Agreement rights.
Read more: French senator backs campaign for easier visas for second-home owners
First French-UK leaders’ summit for five years
Dame Menna said: “The summit is firstly about getting our prime minister and the president to have good quality time together and building relationships between ministers – and I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of that in this first summit for five years, with different political leadership on our side.
“However, broad areas will be addressed, such as defence and security, foreign policy, energy partnership and work together on climate change, migration – including small boats on the Channel – but also people-to-people links, cultural links, and science and innovation.
Read more: UK-France deal on tackling Channel crossings 'in final stages'
“It’s hard to say exactly how far we will get, in what will be a first conversation on some of these issues at this level for a long time.”
She said some issues affecting readers are liable to be more suited to talks between the UK and EU, and this summit will only address bilateral matters, “but if there are opportunities to make things easier, we are very interested in looking at them”.
Dame Menna said businesses on both sides have also been considering issues they would like to be raised.
“In many cases, it will be about picking up the conversation after Brexit and Covid, but we’ve only had two or three months to prepare so I want to manage expectations in terms of how much is going to be deliverable in the very short term.
“But after the summit, I hope new pathways will be set up so we can continue dialogue on matters that are important to your readers and other Britons in France.”
Problems with youth mobility
Asked about ways to make it easier for young people to spend a period working in the other country, with fewer visa and recruitment formalities, she said: “At the moment, the French would rather deal with youth mobility at an EU level.
“It takes two to tango, so we must be clear on what we can do and what might not be possible this time, but it will stay on our agenda for the longer term.
“I agree in principle that it would be good to find ways to make it more straightforward.”
Intensive discussions about Northern Ireland border
The UK/EU dispute over the Northern Ireland border has been described as a possible fly in the ointment.
However, Dame Menna said “intensive discussions are under way” and there is “goodwill” and positive signs that the EU recognises that the Protocol is causing real problems in Northern Ireland.
“As long as the two sides are talking, that’s positive, and I think France recognises that.”
A lot of work with Eurostar and Dover for EES introduction
Regarding new EU Entry/Exit System (EES) border formalities for non-EU visitors, she said this is unlikely to start before the end of this year.
Read more: Plan to ease launch of EU Entry/Exit system with app pre-registration
“It’s an important issue between our countries because of the numbers of Brits and French people travelling.
“Speaking of which, it’s great to see tourism recovering from the immediate post-Brexit and Covid period.
“It’s massively up in both directions, as is trade.
“The likely impact of EES is important because of the juxtaposed border controls and we have been lobbying for a delay, so we’re glad that has been agreed.
“We would like to reassure people there’s a lot of work going on at the Eurostar terminals, Dover, etc, to see how we can manage this as well as possible, and how technology over time will smooth things for people coming in and out.”
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