Emmanuel Macron to reject Sunak’s plan to solve small boats crisis

French President wants UK to establish safe and legal routes for asylum seekers

Kate Devlin,Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 09 March 2023 22:31 GMT
Downing Street brands Gary Lineker’s criticism of asylum policy ‘unacceptable’

Emmanuel Macron is expected to reject British calls to return small boat asylum seekers to France, after his calls for more safe and legal routes to the UK were ignored.

The French president will not publicly embarrass Rishi Sunak over the issue, which could prove a major stumbling block to hopes of a breakthrough when the two meet in Paris on Friday. But sources made clear Mr Macron had not wavered in his position.

Ahead of the first UK-France summit in five years, a French diplomatic source said that Mr Sunak’s newly unveiled plan to turn away all migrants on small boats has not persuaded Paris to change its stance. “The general assessment has not changed,” they said.

And, in a reference to calls for more small boats to be stopped before they leave French beaches, they added: “You can’t solve the issue only with more police on the coast.”

Paris has reportedly briefed that the summit should be seen as the “beginning of a beautiful renewed friendship”.

The UK government is clear that in time it would like a bilateral agreement with Paris that would allow London to immediately return those arriving on British shores unlawfully from France. However, it is working incrementally so a specific request is not expected to be made by Mr Sunak during the meeting.

Among the key points expected to be discussed at the meeting:

  • The idea of the UK “forging a new relationship” with France after last week’s historic post-Brexit trade deal.
  • How the UK government believes the latest small boats legislation will make Britain a less attractive destination. Mr Macron is keen for further details.
  • A focus on several issues including immigration, securing energy supplies, reducing terrorism and ensuring Putin is defeated in Ukraine
  • The UK and France are set to strike a missiles deal to bolster Nato.

Labour said the summit would be a “total failure” if no returns agreement was struck with France.

It comes just a week after Mr Sunak signed a new agreement with the EU designed to ease tensions over Northern Ireland and just weeks before King Charles travels to France for a state visit.

Mr Macron has previously called on Britain to do more to reduce the “push factors” driving asylum seekers to northern France and the Channel.

“We will not be able to resolve this issue if the way of dealing with the subject of migration does not change on the British side … they have not sufficiently organised legal, stable, secure ways and means to seek asylum in Britain,” he told the European Parliament in January 2022.

A No 10 source said: “Tackling illegal migration is a global challenge and it’s vital we work with our allies, particularly the French, to prevent crossings and loss of life in the Channel.

“We want to work together with the French so we can build on the joint approach we agreed [on] last year and keep stepping up patrols and enforcement activity to clamp down on the gangs and stop more boats. This ... summit will be an opportunity to do just that.”

Mr Sunak will use the talks to push France to “go further” on joint efforts to prevent migrants crossing the Channel in the first place.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “These are important discussions that should deepen our work with our French counterparts on stopping the boats. It will build on the expansion we already saw the prime minister announce in his first few weeks.

“We want a EU-UK returns agreement and will push that forward. But it is equally important that there is work on the ground right now to stop the crossings we are seeing even in these winter months.”

Elysee Palace sources have reportedly briefed that a deal could be signed off on “strengthening” co-operation on the border through “multi-year financing”.

An agreement with France designed to help prevent crossings was revised in November to be worth around £63 million in 2022/23, £8 million more than the previous year.

Under the deal, the number of French officers patrolling beaches rose from 200 to 300, while British officers were also stationed in French control rooms and on the approach to beaches for the first time.

The French have already stopped around 50 per cent of people trying to cross the channel this year, around 3,000 in total. The proportion of boats that have been prevented from leaving French shores stands at 64 per cent. But the UK is keen to see those figures rise.

The prime minister’s spokesman said: “In terms of cooperation on the channel… we do have already multimillion pound agreements with the French which are proving to be successful.

“We absolutely do want to go further on that…. some of the work prime minister was keen to deliver on in his first few weeks was deepening and expanding the scope of that.”

When it comes to safe and legal routes ministers have hailed the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine and Hong Kong, but those schemes bypassed asylum processes with the creation of bespoke visas that do not grant refugee status.

Home Office figures show that in 2022, fourteen times more refugees were granted asylum after travelling to the UK themselves than were resettled by the British government.

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