UK Politics

Why getting on well with France matters

Silhouettes of Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Could France be the bridge between the UK and the EU?

Prime ministers and presidents must sometimes get sick of summits.

The salutes, the handshakes and kisses - President Macron is, after all, French - and the inevitable communiqués about the close and cherished relationship with this or that country.

The novelty must, surely, wear off after the first dozen times or so. But here at Sandhurst military academy, as we wait for President Macron and his entourage, it feels as though this UK-French gathering matters more than most.

Deals will be struck on border control and military co-operation here, but the importance of this summit exceeds the sum of its parts.

Border co-operation at Calais matters to both countries, obviously. So does security. Britain and France are Europe's two foremost military powers, both have suffered appalling terrorist outrages and both share a commitment to fighting Islamist jihadism wherever it is found.

It almost seems odd that the heads of the British and French intelligence and security services have not met at the same table before now.

The practical co-operation under discussion and being pledged here matters too.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Macron was greeted by the PM at Sandhurst

Forty four million pounds to beef up the Channel border doesn't sound like much as a proportion of public spending, and it isn't.

But the fences and CCTV improvements and the rest will make a difference and demonstrate Britain's commitment to pulling its weight as Mr Macron insists.

French demands for wider British support for the regional economy won't be settled here. Goodwill can only be expected to stretch so far.

Likewise, the military co-operation is more than purely symbolic.

Heavy lifting

Three British Chinook helicopters is not a huge commitment but it adds a heavy lifting capacity the French lack in Mali, in their long-running confrontation with Islamist fighters.

And yet there is much more at stake than the items on Thursday's agenda.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The 11th Century Bayeux Tapestry portrays the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066.

France and its president, arguably the most politically secure leader in the EU just now, will be crucial to Britain's prospects of getting a decent deal from the European Union on Brexit.

Whatever that deal looks like - and as things stand, the final shape of Brexit is a matter of pure guesswork - the UK's relationship with France will be important in determining Britain's clout as a global player.

France may like the idea of acting as a bridge between the EU and the UK. In much the same way Theresa May suggested Britain could act as a link between Europe and the USA - before the "Special Relationship" began to stutter somewhat.

So getting on well with France - Britain's great rival and closest neighbour for time out of mind - matters more now than it has since before the UK joined what was then the European Common Market in 1973.

Oh, and whatever the longer term significance of this summit, we do get to see the Bayeux Tapestry without having to go abroad.