The relationship between the British and the French carries a bit of history, and France’s feelings on royalty are fairly well established. So imagine the surprise of many commentators when King Charles received a welcome fit for - well, a king. A celebrity-laden banquet at Versailles was followed by a speech by Charles to the French parliament, and much back-slapping from President Macron.
The optics of the visit seven years after Brexit - and a year before a UK general election - are notable. After a particularly frosty period in Franco-British and European relations, there are reasons for businesses on both sides to be optimistic. The tide seems to be turning away from isolationism, and towards a stronger working relationship.
A royal welcome
King Charles' visit was widely trumpeted as an extension of the late queen's love for the country. As she had been unable to visit for some time before her death, Charles wanted to make a show of renewing ties between the two nations. With Brexit having happened in the interim, and much opprobrium about border controls and migration, this would be a chance to wipe the slate clean.
What could easily have been relegated to a minor state visit saw France roll out the red carpet. Starting with a ceremonial welcome by Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at the Arc de Triomphe, the King rekindled the Eternal Flame, and saw a flypast from the Red Arrows and French counterparts Patrouille de France. There was then a bilateral meeting at the Elysee Palace, a public meet and greet, and a ceremonial tree planting ceremony with Macron, all before a glitzy banquet at the grandiose Palace of Versailles.
The centrepiece was perhaps when Charles addressed a packed French Senate, the first time a British monarch had been permitted to do so. Speaking in French, Charles focused his speech on the need for cooperation in the face of global challenges, particularly climate change, something he had been vocal about for a number of years. This followed a similar visit to Germany's Bundestag earlier this year, when he delivered a full speech in German. Other activities followed, including table tennis, a trip to a flower market, and a visit to Saint-Denis.
The historic conflict between England and France had turned into more of a sibling rivalry. But with Brexit, previously warm relations were undeniably soured. A succession of Prime Ministers were at best dismissive, and at worst hostile when it came to the relationship between the two countries, pinning the blame for border chaos and illegal immigration firmly on the French. The nadir arguably came under Liz Truss, when in her campaign to become Prime Minister, she said “the jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or a foe.
With the current leader remaining bullish on the subject, Charles’ visit was an opportunity to pick up the slack, and mend a fractured relationship. The benefit of a king as head of state is that they tend to outlast multiple governments, and are not held back by the same need for political grandstanding. A trip to build diplomatic bridges with France wouldn’t get the same scrutiny as one by the Prime Minister. With a UK election coming up, it could also build goodwill for the next Prime Minister to pick up.
This is important for political reasons, such as cooperation between the two countries on an economic level, security issues, and the looming threat of climate change. But businesses will also have taken notice. A warming of relations between the two countries presents opportunities for joint investment, visa opportunities, and other local issues. But it also represents a relationship between the UK and an integral EU member - and so potentially an improvement in relations between the UK and the EU.
While Brexit remains an extremely touchy subject in the UK, it does seem that attitudes are shifting. Polling by Statista shows that 55% of people in the UK think Brexit was the wrong decision as of September 2023, compared with 32% thinking it was the right decision. It’s fair to say that the much-advertised benefits have not yet been felt by the majority, with high inflation and low growth being keenly felt. This has been reflected in a shift in political rhetoric, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats now committing to stronger ties with the EU.
While there is little chance of reversing Brexit, it seems like there is now less fervour around the idea of a ‘hard Brexit’, where the relationship between the EU and UK would be almost completely severed. The economic reality seven years on - combined with everyday annoyances like passport queues - seems to slowly be convincing some people that more cordial relations would be helpful. This even extends to sovereignty issues such as fishing rights, where UK fishermen seem to feel that things have gotten worse rather than better, as they now can’t sell the fish they have access to due to border delays.
How far this willingness to mend the relationship goes is still unknown. On the EU’s side, there is an understandable weariness over Brexit, and an unwillingness to let the UK off easy. EU Vice-President Maros Sefcovic has said that only the implementation of the deal could be reconsidered, not the contents, and the head of the commission on the agreement has stated that changes are a ‘long shot’. Yet car manufacturers from both sides of the Channel have called for the deal to be altered, including VDA, the German Association of the Automotive Industry.
There’s no clear prognosis for the economic relationship between the UK and France, but there is a fairly clear one for UK politics, where the current Prime Minister is trailing badly in the polls. A new Prime Minister is likely to prioritise better relations with both France and the EU, in a bid to improve vital cooperation on security and investment, and shore up a struggling economy. Most importantly, it seems the willingness is there on the other side, with support in France and Germany for a reset of relations.
While there may be no immediate way past the negative impact of Brexit for businesses, this should at least be seen as a positive sign for businesses in both nations. A strengthening of ties has the potential to loosen the more arbitrary rules and decisions around Brexit, particularly when it comes to the movement of talent, designation of funding, and the solving of unnecessary border control issues. In an increasingly difficult economic environment, a step away from the UK’s current isolation is something to be celebrated.