How will Priti Patel’s tour of European capitals in a bid to solve the migrant crisis go? Well, any visit to Paris will be difficult. Relations between the UK and France have taken a turn for the worse overnight, with Emmanuel Macron making a series of comments both privately and publicly that have landed badly with the UK government.
Discussing the Northern Ireland protocol, the French President said the EU must not ‘cave in’ to British demands on border checks. In comments viewed as incendiary by ministers, Macron described the issue of the border as a matter of ‘war and peace’. However, where Macron has allegedly been the most critical is in his critique of Boris Johnson.
Reports in the French media claim that Macron referred to Johnson in private as a ‘clown’ in response to his handling of the Channel crossings. In comments that have not been denied by the Élysée, Macron is reported to have said:
“‘It is very sad to see a great country, with which we could do so much, led by a clown. Johnson has the attitude of a knucklehead.’
While UK-French relations have been fraying for some time, this is a significant escalation. With the French presidential election taking place in April, ministers don’t believe there will be any improvements in the relationship until after the result – with political gain to be found in criticising the UK government.
Government aides expect relations to get worse before they get better. So, what are the factors that could make it worse? There is already little goodwill between the two sides when it comes to tackling the migrant crisis. If Boris Johnson opts to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol relations will deteriorate even further, with the EU planning a big retaliation in response that could lead to a trade war. While ministers have suggested the UK won’t trigger the protocol before Christmas, it very much remains an option for the coming months.