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‘France-UK ‘détente’ only possible if Northern Ireland issue resolved’

Former UK ambassador to France says improving relationship at risk if government continues to support NI bill; warns of EU Entry-Exit System ‘chaos’ next year

Former UK ambassador to France, Peter Ricketts, says NI deal is essential to good France-UK relationship Pic: shutterstock / Mikalai Kachanovich

Former UK ambassador to France Peter Ricketts says better times should lie ahead for UK-French relations – as long as differences over the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland rules with the EU can be resolved.

However, he fears travel chaos in 2023 as the EU Entry-Exit System gets under way. 

War in Ukraine puts squabbles into context

Lord Ricketts, a cross-bench peer, said: “Things are looking better than they were, partly because of the war in Ukraine, which means everything else is put into perspective. 

“When you have a major war in your continent, the other squabbles and differences look minor in comparison.

“Then with the energy price crisis as well, the feeling on both sides has been that they need to draw a line under the rows and differences.”

Truss had ’good grace’ to attend Macron’s European Political Com­mu­nity launch

Lord Ricketts was speaking to The Connexion a few days before Liz Truss stood down as prime minister.

He said Ms Truss had not tended towards the “personal mockery” that Boris Johnson was prone to, despite her comment that “the jury is out” when asked if President Macron was a “friend or foe”. “So all that [antagonism] has been dialled down now,” he said.

Read more: UK PM Liz Truss decides President Macron is a ‘friend’ after all

Read more: UK PM Liz Truss joins first meeting of new ‘club of European nations’

“That remark was just a misjudgement during her leadership contest to appeal to the anti-Euro­pean right of the Conser­va­tive Party, but at least she had the good grace to go to the meeting [of the new European Political Com­mu­nity, launched by Mr Macron] in October and she had a bilateral talk with Macron. 

France-UK joint ventures are positive

“She said on that occasion she was clear France was a friend – that’s something – and they agreed to a summit in 2023, which is important symbolically.

“In principle, it will be in France and they singled out the issue of energy, on which the UK and France already work very closely. 

“Notably, EDF is a big investor in Hinkley Point power station [being built in south west England] and is going to invest in the next nuclear site at Sizewell in East Anglia. 

“They talked about renew­able energy as well, and working together on small-boat migration in the Channel. So, those are positive signs.”

Northern Ireland Brexit deal is key to future relationship 

However, he added that what could “knock off [course]” this improved relationship is if the UK government persists in “pushing through” a bill on Northern Ireland which would allow them to “tear up part of the [Brexit Withdrawal Agree­ment] protocol”.

Lord Ricketts said the signs are “looking slightly more positive” on this too, as France-UK talks continue. 

The bill is expected to be under discussion in the Lords until the end of the year, so the government has time to come to a deal on it and to change its mind on supporting it in the Commons.

“With all the current chaos, I’m not even sure they would get a majority in favour of it any more anyway,” he said. “If they do come to a deal, that would really signal a change of approach – a resetting of the relationship. 

“It’s an essential precondition, because if the government push ahead with the bill, I doubt the summit or some of these other good things will necessarily happen.

“If it does, we can talk about a détente [relaxing of tensions] or entente – and things getting back together in terms of UK-France, which would be very good. 

“We need to know by the end of the year if these negotiations are going to work. I very much hope they will.”

Chaos expected with EU’s new ‘Entry/Exit System’ 

He added that he believed the then-current Chancellor and Foreign Secretary both wanted to “get back to a more normal relationship” with France, so “the signs are good, though it’s all very fragile”.

Should it happen, we might see more progress on new deals on controversial issues, such as EU tours for performers.

A less positive aspect, however, is the EU’s new (but long-planned) ‘Entry/Exit System’ due to start in May, which is expected to mean long queues, in particular at Folkestone (Eurotunnel), Dover (ferry terminal) and St Pancras (Eurostar), where French checks are carried out on UK soil. 

Read more: Will non-EU residents of France need Etias to return from trip abroad?

Read more: UK-France Eurostar capacity cut by a third due to post-Brexit checks

For other Channel ports, or airports, the same may be expected on arrival in France.

It will require people to get out of their cars to have photos and fingerprints taken to be registered in a new electronic system on their first arrival into the Schengen area.

“All you hear from Eurostar, Eurotunnel and the ports is that there will be chaos, at least for the first year or so,” he said.

“They think recording each person’s data is going to take up to four minutes, so for a car of five it will be a nightmare.

“But the idea is that once you are on the system, it will be much easier. I expect you will be able to scan your passport or fingerprint – it will be quicker and will automatically count where you are up to in your 90-in-180 days in the Schengen area so border police don’t have to calculate it. 

“Hopefully, eventually we will go back to e-gates [as for EU citizens] and in three years’ time, when it’s all settled in, probably it will make things quicker, but it looks like being chaos in the short term.”

The operators are looking for solutions, he said, but at St Pancras, in particular, there is “almost no extra space” to allocate to the new formalities.

Weak pound may continue to pose problems

The problem of the weak pound is also likely to continue to pose problems for those in France who rely on sterling income, he said – a fact which “is not getting coverage in the UK”. 

“I really feel for people, but can’t predict where the markets will go and do not see an obvious solution to it.”

Asked about the likelihood of an early election he said he doubts this will happen, because the opinion polls are unfavourable to the government. The most likely date is autumn 2024, he said.

An early election would cause frustration for long-term British residents in France who have not yet regained their promised West­minster voting rights, despite a law on this having been passed, due to a lack of necessary regulations being put in place to allow them to re-register.

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