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Macron and Truss kiss and make up in Prague after 'friend or foe' row

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By Alasdair Sandford  with AFP
UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and French President Emmanuel Macron meet on the sidelines of the European Political Community meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, Oct 6, 2022.
UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and French President Emmanuel Macron meet on the sidelines of the European Political Community meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, Oct 6, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Alastair Grant, Pool   -  

Liz Truss has said that Emmanuel Macron is a friend of Britain, having declared during the summer that "the jury's out" on whether the French president was a friend or foe.

"I work very, very closely with President Macron and the French government and what we’re talking about is how the UK and France can work more closely together to build more nuclear power stations and to make sure that both countries have energy security in the future," the British prime minister told reporters in Prague, where she has been attending the first summit of the European Political Community.

When asked whether the French leader was a friend, she replied: "He is a friend."

"We’re both very clear the foe is Vladimir Putin, who has through his appalling war in Ukraine threatened freedom and democracy in Europe and pushed up energy prices," Truss went on.

Macron said he was glad Truss had joined other European leaders. "It's very good to have Liz Truss in Prague," he said at a news conference after the summit of EU and non-EU countries.

"This is an island, but this island didn't move from the continent," Macron said of post-Brexit Britain. "I really hope this is the beginning of the day after."

The two leaders held a bilateral meeting in Prague, and issued a joint statement agreeing to continue supporting Ukraine against Russia, work together on energy strategy, illegal migration and other matters. They also resolved to hold the next UK-France Summit in France in 2023.

Towards the end of August, Liz Truss — then foreign secretary and involved in the run-off to become Conservative Party leader and thus the country's new prime minister — ruffled diplomatic feathers with her reply to a question at a campaign event.

"Emmanuel Macron, friend or foe?" she was asked.

"The jury's out," she replied, to laughter and applause from the audience of Tory party sympathisers. "But if I become prime minister I will judge him on deeds not words."

The backdrop was strained relations between France, exacerbated by Brexit and its fallout, as well as clashes over other issues such as fishing rights, migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats, and passport checks at borders.

In their joint statement, Macron and Truss "agreed to deepen cooperation on illegal migration within the bounds of international law, to tackle criminal groups trafficking people across Europe, ending in dangerous journeys across the Channel".

"Interior Ministers should conclude an ambitious package of measures this autumn. Leaders agreed to reinforce cooperation with near neighbours, including through an early meeting of the Calais group," it added.

The commitment to work within international law and with neighbouring countries will be noted by critics of the stance taken by the British government under Truss' predecessor Boris Johnson.

Last November France disinvited the then Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel from a migrant crisis summit also involving Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany —after Johnson pre-empted the meeting by posting a letter on social media suggesting solutions the French had already rejected.

The two leaders have very different views on the European Union, and Truss was accused of playing to the gallery of her party's supporters with her "jury's out" remarks. Once a pro-European party, Britain's Conservatives have since undergone a massive eurosceptic transformation. In the wake of Brexit, EU enthusiasts have been largely purged.

Truss' comments were seen as serious however, given that France and the UK are NATO allies, and Europe and the West have been striving to act in unity defending Ukraine against Russia's war.

The Labour opposition accused her of a "woeful" lack of judgement, while two former Conservative ministers said she had committed a "desperately serious error".

President Macron responded at the time by saying that the UK was "a friendly, strong and allied nation, regardless of its leaders or the small mistakes they can make in statements from the podium".

Since Liz Truss became prime minister, the British government has shown signs of wanting to build bridges with both France and the EU as a whole. She and Macron met at the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September.

On Tuesday,  the new British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said he had "no doubt" that the UK would work "brilliantly closely" with France, despite the recurring friction between the two countries.

European leaders gathered in Prague on Thursday for the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community — an initiative of the French president — to discuss the continent's challenges, with leaders insisting on common values.

Additional sources • Reuters