French President Emmanuel Macron receiving UK premier Rishi Sunak at the Elysée Palace last week certainly made for good television. Two relatively young men in nifty black suits, both investment bankers turned politicians, playing out a trans-Channel bromance. When they were not vigorously shaking hands, they were rubbing—or scratching—each other’s back. Even the drizzle that threatened to dampen the lovefest was warded off by a shared brolly, reminiscent of Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Shree 420. Sunak would no doubt see the warm reception as a personal validation. His short-lived predecessor, Liz Truss, had pronounced less than six months ago that the jury was out on whether Macron was a friend or a foe; as it turned out, it was she who was out before the jury was in.
Sunak is right to try to redeem the trust deficit with Europe created by the combined inflexibility, arrogance and in one case, the sheer incompetence of his three immediate predecessors in No. 10 since the Brexit referendum. Better relations with Europe and bringing Brexit into safe harbour are essential to give credibility to UK’s global ambitions. Greater cooperation with France is also critical for the prime minister to fulfil one of his five stated top priorities: resolving the so-called problem of small boats; thousands—45,000 by 2022 count—of asylum seekers are crossing the Channel in flimsy, inflatable boats, many fleeing persecution and war. This rush has submerged the asylum system, angered Conservative rank-and-file and given powerful ammunition to a resurgent Labour. Sunak has promised to pay nearly half a billion pounds to France over the next three years to strengthen hi-tech coastal monitoring and add a new detention centre. This will all take time to implement. Meanwhile, a new government bill on illegal migration and asylum policy is running into heavy weather with the courts, international law and human rights bodies, not to mention spinoffs like the recent BBC-Lineker controversy. For the present, small boats will continue to throw long shadows.
Sunak’s effusive overture to Macron came close on the heels of the Windsor Framework deal with EU’s Ursula von der Leyen. This deal, reached after weeks of confidential negotiations, revamps the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), the awkward post-Brexit arrangement which skirted a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland only by putting a customs border in the Irish sea. This had resulted in all sorts of problems: trade hurdles between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, anger among the Belfast unionists, a breakdown of governance in Northern Ireland and fresh calls for Irish unification. It had also annoyed a certain Irish-American called Joe Biden. The Windsor Framework, with pragmatic concessions from both sides, manages better trade all around, largely retains the integrity of the European single market and creates no hard border in Ireland. Not surprisingly, prospects of a US-UK free trade agreement have immediately brightened.
Applause all around, except for a typically British controversy which shows that storms do actually happen in tea cups. After sealing the deal, a visibly relieved von der Leyen was received for tea by King Charles at Windsor Castle. Allegations were flying even before the second cuppa had been served: the meeting was a Royal sweetener for von der Leyen, known to have a thing for British royalty and history; Government was manipulating the monarch, the King was interfering in politics, and so on. Both Buckingham Palace and No.10 bounced off the responsibility to the other and the storm abated. But Sunak’s problems of rampant inflation, industrial unrest and beleaguered public services remain. Meanwhile, Labour has a 28 per cent lead in popularity polls.
Navtej Sarna is former ambassador of India to the US and author, most recently, of the novel Crimson Spring.