French President Emmanuel Macron will meet UK opposition chief Keir Starmer Tuesday, a chance for both men to strike up a political relationship with the Labour Party increasingly confident it can take over from Britain’s ruling Conservatives.
The closed-door talks at Macron’s Elysee Palace in Paris come as part of a mini-international tour for Starmer, who visited Europol in The Hague last week and appeared alongside fellow centre-left leaders — including Canada’s Justin Trudeau and former British prime minister Tony Blair — at a weekend gathering in Montreal.
In a Sunday interview billed by the Financial Times as Starmer “stepping onto the global stage”, he told the newspaper he would “attempt to get a much better deal for the UK” with the EU.
The post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation agreement struck by ex-PM Boris Johnson is due for review in 2025.
France is a partner of rare importance for Britain as an EU heavyweight, close military ally and fellow nuclear power, fellow UN Security Council member and immediate neighbour.
Cross-Channel ties have warmed under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a former banker like Macron whose relationship with the president has been dubbed a “bromance” by parts of the media.
But with his party struggling in the polls, the Conservative leader must call an election by January 2025 — even as he confronts stubborn challenges including inflation and irregular arrivals of migrants across the Channel.
Both sides have been tight-lipped about the content of Tuesday’s closed-door talks, but Macron’s invitation is “not an endorsement, it’s not going to be a negotiation,” Georgina Wright, a European politics expert at French think-tank Institut Montaigne told AFP.
“It’s really just a question of meeting and hearing what Labour would do differently and that’s it,” she added, predicting Macron will be “as much as he can in listening mode” but may also “highlight France’s priorities”.
“Macron does this all the time” but “never once has he endorsed a candidate” ahead of an overseas election, Wright noted — recalling his meetings with German candidates including now-Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his opponent Armin Laschet ahead of the 2021 election to the Bundestag.
Struggling to make headway on his legislative priorities in a hung parliament, Macron also has a domestic political interest in showing he remains a coveted interlocutor abroad.
Any British-French meeting is likely to include discussion of migration, as one of Sunak’s biggest political headaches is the frequent arrivals in small boats from northern France.
Starmer last week signalled that he would like Britain to join an EU-wide quota system for sharing out migrants.
The arrangement has come under strain following record arrivals on the Italian island of Lampedusa and Germany’s suspension of accepting migrants living in Italy.
Starmer’s trip to France also comes the day before a state visit by King Charles III and Queen Camilla — British figures generating “much more excitement in France” than the opposition leader, Wright said.