‘Easier to make life better for Britons in France with summit success’

Lord Ricketts, ex-UK ambassador to France, explains what a more respectful London-Paris relationship means for the future

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“The arrival of Rishi Sunak as prime minister, as well as our cooperation over the war in Ukraine, has changed the whole atmosphere in UK-France relations”, Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former ambassador to France, told The Connexion’s Liv Rowland.

Read more: What did Macron and Sunak agree at UK-France summit?

‘No more mockery of the French, which helps’

“Boris Johnson was deeply distrusted in France, and [Liz] Truss spoke of being unsure if France was a friend or foe. Things now feel much more positive.

“I was at the March UK-France summit as I took Franco-British young leaders to meet Macron and Sunak, and it was lovely.

“They were clearly getting on. They’re compatible people: both ex-bankers, both young, and both serious politicians who do their homework. They’re respectful and there’s no more mockery of the French, which helps a lot.”

Read more: ‘Merci, mon ami’: UK-France reset as Sunak meets Macron in Paris

Read more: Macron-Sunak summit is key to new ‘entente’ says ambassador to France

‘Big cloud has cleared’

The recent agreement on the Northern Ireland border arrangements had also “cleared a big cloud that hung over the EU-UK relationship”.

“While the protocol was still being argued over and the UK was threatening unilateral action, the Europeans weren’t about to do any more deals with us, so it clears away an obstacle.”

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

The launch of new European Entry-Exit System border formalities, which had been expected to cause queues this summer at EU airports and ports, as well as in London for the Eurostar, has been put off.

“The European Commission proposal is that it should come around November, but the French are saying ‘not until after the Olympics’ [in summer 2024] and I suspect they will get their way.

“Problems and delays will still come, but it does give more time for Eurostar and Eurotunnel, etc, to prepare.”

Educational exchanges may get easier

Lord Ricketts believes that one of the most noticeable results of the summit is a renewed focus on cultural and educational exchanges.

“The requirement that every child has a passport has pretty much killed school exchanges – in rural parts of France, half the class might not have passports. I think the UK is gearing up to go back to what they had agreed before, which was accepting one collective travel document with all the children’s names,” he said.

“On the French side, there is some kind of visa requirement at the moment, but the French are reviewing that. So, both sides are trying to free it up.

Lord Ricketts added: “Hundreds of thousands of French kids used to come to the UK over the Easter holidays every year with school parties, and it was a formative experience, so we want to get back to that.

“What they haven’t done, however, is anything on the problems faced by touring artists as, they believe, that would be something that would have to be addressed at EU level instead. But the door isn’t shut to it.”

Upcoming anniversaries are opportunities for the relationship

The summit also looked at preparations for the 120th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale.

“It will be another of those landmark moments in the diary, which can be useful. This was a 1904 agreement, in which King Edward VII was instrumental in brokering a new deal with the French, including on trade.

“It’s an opportunity for more events and a celebration of the relationship – though the big thing in France next year will be the Olympics, so whatever we do will have to fit with that.

“Next year is also the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and at the Normandy Memorial, of which I’m president, we are hoping the King may attend.

“The Queen used to come for the 10-year anniversaries.”

Emotion in France over Queen’s death

“It’s great France was chosen for his first state visit abroad,” he added.

The French are delighted. It will remind people that although the political relationship has been choppy over the last couple of years, the deeper relations between the two countries are still very strong [editor’s note: we spoke before the news of the visit being deferred].

“We saw the huge emotion in France about the Queen’s death, and the King and the Queen Consort coming will continue those emotional links between the peoples of the UK and France.”

Read more: King Charles III’s state visit postponed amid France pensions unrest

It will get easier for Britons in France

The Connexion had suggested to the British Embassy that issues affecting Britons in France or second-home owners, such as more flexible visa or prefecture procedures, might be addressed, but Lord Ricketts said they did not seem to have been “at the top of the pile”.

Some such issues might be seen by France as questions for the EU, he said.

“I know it’s frustrating, as people would like to reduce the paperwork.

“But over the years we will find ways of reducing burdens, as it’s also a huge demand on the French, including the prefectures, to have all this paperwork, and people coming in and out.

“I think as anger about Brexit subsides, some of this can be cleared away.

“There are all kinds of areas where ordinary life could be improved with fairly simple changes in the rules, but we certainly have a better context now in which to pursue these things than when we were constantly having rows.”

Brexit deal and a new British government

Lord Ricketts also thinks that 2025 could be an important year, as the chance to renegotiate aspects of the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement comes up.

“It will be after the next British election, and with a new British government, and will be an opportunity to look at ways to ease up on some of the frictions of Brexit.

“So it could be an interesting time, depending on the attitude of the UK government in power.

“It’s an important way-point in the future and the work will have to get under way in the early part of 2025 to conclude at the end of the year.

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