Emmanuel Macron, the French president, will meet Sir Keir Starmer in Paris on Tuesday, as the UK opposition leader faces claims he is looking to take Britain “back to square one on Brexit”.
Starmer told the Financial Times this weekend that he would seek to get “a much better deal” on Brexit if he wins the next election, including seeking a “closer trading relationship” by revisiting the post-Brexit trade pact.
The Labour leader will raise UK-EU relations in what will be his first meeting with Macron, but the Conservatives claimed that Starmer would “reopen the arguments of the past”.
“Seven years on from the referendum, Keir Starmer wants to take Britain back to square one on Brexit, reopening the arguments of the past all over again,” a Conservative spokesperson said.
James Cleverly, foreign secretary, told the FT at the United Nations in New York that some in the EU thought Starmer was “delusional”. He said: “I think there’s very little I can add to that.”
Starmer’s visit to the Élysée Palace marks the culmination of a week in which he has tried to introduce himself on to the world stage as a prime minister-in-waiting, including promising to repair EU relations.
Conservatives believe Starmer has made a strategic mistake by starting to talk openly about trying to improve the “far too thin” trade deal struck by Boris Johnson after Brexit.
Lord Peter Ricketts, former UK ambassador to France, said Macron would be trying to work out the extent to which he could work with Starmer, who campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum on EU membership.
“Politicians are generally interested in other politicians who are on the rise,” he said. “But I don’t think France or Germany are looking for a big leap forward on UK-EU relations. They have lots of other things on their plate.”
Starmer said an “implementation review” of Johnson’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU planned from the end of 2025 was an “important” moment, but Ricketts said at the moment Brussels saw it as more of a technical exercise.
Elysée officials have been careful to cast the meeting as a normal part of the French president’s diplomatic calendar, which periodically sees him meet opposition leaders from other countries. There will be no joint press conference.
Relations between Britain and France have improved in the year since Rishi Sunak became prime minister from the lows they plumbed under Boris Johnson, who was seen by Paris as an unreliable partner.
With negotiations over the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU now settled, the source of much tension between the two has abated, although the issue of cross-Channel illegal migration has remained difficult.
Georgina Wright, director of the Europe programme at Paris-based think-tank, Institut Montaigne, said Macron was likely to be in listening mode during the meeting: “France and the rest of the EU don’t really know what Labour wants to do.”
She added: “Starmer needs to use this moment wisely to set out how a Labour government would be different not only on EU matters but on the global stage.”