In the run-up to a general election, being seen interacting with world leaders is an important element to building legitimacy and credibility for both the incumbent and challenger campaigning for the top spot. The meeting between Keir Starmer and Emmanuel Macron on 19 September is such a moment. It concludes an intense international week for Starmer, who met last week with Europol at The Hague to discuss immigration issues, before flying to Canada at the weekend for a gathering of centre-left leaders – including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This international campaign differentiates Starmer from his predecessor – who very rarely met with world leaders abroad.
The meeting with Macron is different from Starmer’s visit to Canada. France is the UK’s largest neighbour. The French President is a key actor in the EU. Engaging with a major European leader such as Macron will help to further position Starmer’s legitimacy as a potential Prime Minister in waiting.
Starmer’s EU approach needs Macron on board
Keir Starmer is not going to France just to boost his credentials at home. Throughout the Brexit process, France has been leading a tougher approach towards the UK. Starmer knows this. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy said, "ties with Europe is a top priority for Labour." If Starmer is to achieve anything meaningful on this front once in power, he needs to build a relationship with the EU’s key leaders at the earliest opportunity. On the bilateral front, Starmer will also need Macron’s cooperation to address the widely debated issue of illegal Channel crossings. Importantly, If Starmer does become Prime Minister in 2024, he will have to work with Macron for three years before the next French presidential election in 2027.
Arguably, the current Conservative government has made significant efforts and achieved progress to stabilise the relationship with the EU and with France in particular. Earlier this year, it concluded the negotiations on Northern Ireland which unlocked several agreements with the EU – on financial services cooperation and on innovation and research with the UK joining the Horizon programme this month. Rishi Sunak held a bilateral summit with Emmanuel Macron earlier this year and agreed to additional measures to tackle the illegal crossings of the Channel.
So, what more can the Labour Party do? The review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in 2025 will provide an opportunity but offers limited scope for change. The party is likely to be more ambitious outside of the TCA, notably through a new “security pact” to increase defence cooperation and put in place a structure for a regular dialogue on these issues. It is worth stressing that the EU’s approach towards the UK will not change just because there is a new government. A Labour government will not have the history of the Conservative government regarding the EU, but the relationship will remain transactional. Labour has to think carefully about the EU’s interests in deepening ties with the UK.
What’s in it for France?
One can also wonder why President Macron is engaging with Starmer at this stage. For the French President, it’s a balancing exercise: the relationship with Rishi Sunak has clearly improved, but a general election is likely to be held in 2024 in the UK. Overall, the French President will have thought that we are sufficiently far away from the election for the meeting not to be seen as meddling in UK domestic politics. It is also a fact that the Franco-British relationship has made progress under both Labour and Conservative governments. There is, therefore, a French interest in preparing the ground for potential political change and rebuilding ties with the Labour Party.
There is also ideological proximity between Macron’s party and the current Labour Party: Macron won by campaigning in the centre, and by uniting the centre-left and the centre-right – a very similar approach to Tony Blair who has become a source of inspiration for the current Labour leadership. Emmanuel Macron is close to Tony Blair – he delivered an address to his Future of Britain conference in July by video link. The French President certainly feels much closer to the current Labour leadership than he did to the previous one. It would not be surprising if Mr Blair had a role in Keir Starmer obtaining a meeting with the French President.
Continuity of Franco-British relations
Starmer’s meeting with Macron also happens the same week as King Charles III’s State visit to France. While the two events are not connected, the King’s visit is a sign of the continuity of the Franco-British relationship ahead of a potential change of government in the UK. It is a largely symbolic event, but it builds on the progress already made in mending ties between the two countries after years of disagreements over Brexit, immigration, Covid and the AUKUS deal.
Keir Starmer’s meeting with President Macron is an important moment for the Labour leader and for his approach to the EU. Whether UK politicians like it or not, France is an element of British politics as it crosses many of the key issues facing the country, from immigration to foreign policy. But a lot of work still needs to be done to flesh out Labour’s approach towards the EU. This is only the beginning of a long dialogue with EU leaders who have clearly started to listen carefully to what Labour has to say.
This blog was written by Francois-Joseph Schichan, a Director based in London and former French Diplomat, and with input from Flint Partner Siôn Simon, a former Labour MEP, MP, Metro Mayor candidate and a Minister in the last Labour government.
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