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Why Starmer needs a French connection

Renewing the Entente Cordiale in Macron’s remaining time in office will help bring Britain closer to Europe

Photo: Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

Barring some unforeseen calamity, on July 18, at Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, the new UK prime minister Keir Starmer will host a meeting of around 50 European leaders, inside and outside the European Union, at a meeting of the European Political Community.  The brainchild of French president Emmanuel Macron, the EPC is envisaged as an intergovernmental forum for heads of states and governments, similar to the G7 and G20 summits.  

The EPC summit is scheduled hot on the heels of NATO’s 75th anniversary commemoration in Washington, DC.  Both provide an opportunity to affirm a new government’s internationalist instincts.

This year marks the 120th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale, the 1904 Franco-British accord ending the two nations’ long-lived imperial rivalry.  Maturing into wartime allies only 10 years later, the Entente was the foundation stone through two world wars, the Cold War and into the new century.

President Macron has already offered an olive branch, with his customary elan in a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, on the need to restore the Franco-British relationship to its former glory.  Speaking in English and French, on the anniversary of 1904’s Entente Cordiale between France and the United Kingdom, that ended a millennia of enmity and rivalry, resolving all outstanding disputes.

Macron expressed his hope and belief that “even after Brexit and with war back in Europe, this entente cordiale is… the cornerstone… that allows us to maintain the…relationship.”  The Entente’s importance endures, the Fifth Republic’s eighth president declared, because the world’s liberal democracies are menaced by their enemies, warning: “A civilisation can die.”

France would benefit not only from closer links torn asunder by Britain’s self-harming exit from the European Union but also an ally inside the EU that shares its liberal and  democratic values.  And a new UK government, untarnished by the string of mistakes from prime minister David Cameron’s 2013 pledge to hold 2016’s unnecessary, unwise referendum through to Rishi Sunak’s recent rejection of the EU’s offer for mutual free movement for under-30s, has an opportunity to reset relations.

Both countries are increasingly drawn into the war Vladimir Putin brought to European soil two years ago.  Putin’s penchant for assassinating his enemies has extended to successful and botched efforts on sovereign British and French territory.  

The Russian dictator also likes to interfere in the democratic events of the two longstanding democracies, including fostering links with France’s far-right National Rally, formerly the National Front and its two-time presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.  And the UK’s golden visa scheme has led to Russian money laundering in the country to the tune of billions of pounds.

Britain and France also have been touched by tragedy in the shape of Islamic fundamentalist terror on their own territory at the Bataclan in Paris in 2015 and the Manchester Arena in 2017.

Homegrown nationalism also is a problem on both sides of the Channel.  France’s right-left divide has developed into a battle between Macron’s pro-Europe–”neither left, nor right” in his recent campaign slogan–Renaissance Party and Le Pen’s National Rally, a more unstable two-party system.

While Macron twice defeated Le Pen, 66:44% in 2017; and 59:42% in 2022, he can’t run for a third term under the Fifth Republic’s constitution, and the next presidential contest looks set to be closer.  French pollster Ifop has Le Pen at 51:49 in a hypothetical second-round run-off against current prime minister Gabriel Attal, and 50:50 versus former prime minister Edouard Phillipe, both Macron appointees.

This month’s European elections have Le Pen’s party polling at 31% to 16% for Macron’s party, in Politico’s poll of polls, potentially meaning 87 NR seats in the European Parliament, up from 28 today.

In addition to the political crisis that would follow a Le Pen presidency for France and the EU in response to her foreign, economic and social policy nationalism, it also would challenge British diplomacy, as the UK government has a longstanding policy of refusing to engage with her party.

Meanwhile, nationalism in Britain has advanced so far since 2016’s misguided and misjudged referendum that no major national party now supports rejoining the EU, running at around 60:40% in favour according to current polling, while illegal immigration policies have turned into a bidding war. 

Whoever wins the Fifth Republic’s 13th presidential election, there are 1,025 days between July 4, 2024 and April 25, 2027, the day scheduled for any second-round run-off should no candidate achieve over 50% on the first round, and likely Macron’s last day in the Elysée Palace.  That is two years, nine months and 21 days to rebuild the relationship with our great ally across the Channel.

Since legislation takes time, Starmer needs to use his first 100 days to set a new tone, signalling a changed direction.  In this, the new British prime minister should follow in the footsteps of newly-elected Tony Blair in 1998 and address France’s National Assembly, in French as Blair did.  

This also served to signify closing the chapter on antipathy toward the European project from a distracted and divided Tory government, although the Euroscepticism that stretched from Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech through seven years of John Major’s government, and envisaged the UK inside the EU, pales in comparison with today’s full-on isolationist nationalism that now completely dominates the Tories.

Rishi Sunak, trying to repair relations after the calumny of his two immediate predecessors, which included, according to Johnson’s then communications director Guto Hari, calling Macron “a four-letter word that begins with ‘C’” and Truss, who when asked if Macron was “friend or foe” replied “the jury’s still out on that one,” turned to the new King, hemmed in by his party’s Francophobia.

King Charles III’s state visit in September last year, which included an address to both houses of the French Parliament, in French and English, was widely regarded as a diplomatic triumph.  Starmer can and should go in person, demonstrating that the ill-feeling of unhappier political times is past.

More substantially, Starmer should reverse the scorched-earth policy of the previous administration and revisit, with Macron’s support, the EU offer, obstinately rejected by Theresa May, allowing the UK to once again participate in the EU’s popular Erasmus+ student exchange programme. 

Beginning in 1987, by agreement of twelve members, including the UK, this initiative shares £12.5 billion funding over 300,000 participating students, studying and undertaking training abroad.  Before the UK’s withdrawal France was the second most popular destination for participating British students, with the UK the top destination among French students.  Obviously this helps to build bonds, Suella Braverman’s participation–studying European and French law at the Sorbonne–notwithstanding.

Not all of Britain’s rapprochement with France need be a repudiation of the past 14 years. Starmer’s first Education Act could and should include reversing the 2004 Blair-era decision to end the requirement for state secondary school students to take a second language other than English to GCSE level, restoring the status quo ante of Thatcher education secretary Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Act.

Some 331,000 British students took French to age 16 in 2004 compared to only 131,000 in 2023, some of whom are in private schools, where about two-thirds require a second language to this level.  Steps such as this by the UK government and devolved parliaments can help bridge the divide whereby six in 10 French adults claim a basic understanding of English but only one in 10 Brits say this of French.

More ambitiously still, Starmer should take up a proposal made recently in a speech by former foreign secretary David Miliband for a foreign and defence policy partnership between the UK and EU.  Knee-jerk rejection of a prior EU offer by Theresa May has led to an absurd situation in which the EU has such strategic partnerships with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan but not the UK.  

Miliband’s proposal covers defence procurement, cybersecurity, undocumented immigration, international development and green technology.  This could be built from the ground up following the idea forwarded by shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, who has been tweeting in French in anticipation of regime change, for UK observer status at meetings of the EU’s monthly foreign affairs council.

But whatever progress may be made at a symbolic or bilateral governmental level, plainly and perhaps painfully for some, Starmer can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the UK’s deeply damaging exit from Europe’s half-billion person single market and customs union, which the country can’t afford.

Respected independent global analyses of the economic drain on the UK economy differ on the size of the cost but not that it is sizeable.  From the National Institute for Economic and Social Research’s estimated 5-6% GDP hit; to the London School of Economics’ 5%; to Goldman Sachs’ 5%; to Cambridge Econometrics’ 4.8% there is little doubt that Britain is worse off out of the EU.  Yet no national party, including Labour or even the Liberal Democrats dare question 2016’s narrow Leave victory.  This despite current opinion polling for rejoining the EU running as high as 60:40%, a 12-point swing in eight years, larger than that to either main party in any general election since 1945.

There are many different political currents involved in navigating rejoining the EU and the shift in public opinion is but one.  Competing with this current, is the need for Labour to win ‘Red Wall’ constituencies that voted Leave in 2016 and were reliably Labour before Boris Johnson’s Tories won them from Labour under Jeremy Corbyn in 2019; the public’s weariness of another referendum; the political necessity of holding a referendum to rejoin; and the risk of what would be a disaster for pro-Europeans: losing for a second time.  But the new government must navigate these politically treacherous waters.

Here Macron can be Britain’s ally while he remains in power, as hopefully can his heir.  A huge opportunity lies in the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Act, negotiated and signed hastily by Boris Johnson as prime minister.  Starmer has already signalled that he would like a substantial renegotiation, noting that “Almost everyone recognises the deal Johnson struck is not a good deal,” tellingly adding, “It’s far too thin.”

But if UK realignment with EU laws and renegotiated mutual access to market are the big items for Labour’s first term.  Where does that leave full access to Europe’s single market and customs union?  Perhaps this could be achieved using primarily legislation following a manifesto pledge for a second term.

 Will the Tories reconnect with their great instinct for adaptability to survive, as in 1945, 1964 and 1974 when they were back within five or six years or will they, as in 1997, elect to dig deeper down the nationalist rabbit hole, and think of the centre only after three defeats?  And will Labour’s 2024 majority be so great, as some polls suggest, that the Tories will need more than one or two general elections to rebuild?  These are unknowns but there is no reason to think 2016’s referendum will be any more successful at resolving the issue as that of 1975, creating conditions for a third vote.

Highly respected psephologist and pollster, Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University, is now on record as predicting that there will be a third referendum, after 1975 and 2016 “before 2040”–potentially within the lifetime of the next Labour government, should it enjoy successive terms from a high baseline.

Britain was famously stung by two vetoes, in 1963 and 1967, from the Fifth Republic’s first president, Charles de Gaulle, before finally gaining accession in 1972. We will need a strong ally in France to rejoin.

In June 1940, with Hitler marching on Paris, the new UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill proposed to the French cabinet, combining the two nations into one ‘Franco-British’ Union, before France surrendered.  And in 1956, the French government, beset by Fourth Republic instability, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet proposed union with common citizenship and Elizabeth II as head of state.

Less dramatically, let Starmer and Macron renew 1904’s entente, as firm allies again, starting July 4th.

Barnaby Towns was special adviser to William Hague. He writes about Britain, France and America

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