Macron criticises Sunak’s Rwanda plan as politics of ‘cynicism’ and a betrayal of European values

Home secretary James Cleverly hit out at ‘distasteful’ and ‘lazy’ criticism of policy, but insisted he was not talking about French leader’s remarks

Kate Devlin,Archie Mitchell,Tom Watling
Thursday 25 April 2024 19:39 BST
Sunak meets Macron at G7 to discuss small boat crossings

French president Emmanuel Macron has denounced Rishi Sunak’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda as the politics of “cynicism” and a betrayal of European values.

Mr Macron also warned it would be “ineffective", just days after the scheme – designed to give thousands a one-way ticket to the African country – cleared its final parliamentary hurdle in the UK.

Downing Street hit back, saying its approach was the “right one” and that other countries around the world were exploring “similar options”.

The home secretary James Cleverly also spoke out against “lazy” and “distasteful” criticism of the policy, but insisted he was not talking about the president’s remarks.

Leading lawyer and cross-bench peer Alex Carlile, who fought hard against the policy in the Lords by pushing for amendments to improve the bill, told The Independent: “These are fair comments by the French president. I agree with him.”

Mr Sunak has pledged to get planes in the air to Rwanda by July, a move he argues will create a deterrent and stop migrants trying to reach the UK in small boats.

But he has come under intense pressure from the United Nations and others to rethink his plans after five people died off the coast of northern France while trying to cross the Channel earlier this week.

Britain pays France millions of pounds to support policing at the French coast, designed to stop migrants setting out on perilous journeys.

Former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told The Independent: “As [Napoleon] Bonaparte said ‘there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous’ and the president of France is always keen to take such a step.”

In a wide-ranging speech on the future of the European Union at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Mr Macron said he did not “believe in the model ... which would involve finding third countries on the African continent or elsewhere where we’d send people who arrive on our soil illegally, who don’t come from these countries”.

“We’re creating a geopolitics of cynicism which betrays our values and will build new dependencies, and which will prove completely ineffective,” he added.

Downing Street said the Rwanda plan was “entirely compliant with our international obligations” and that “our approach is the right one”.

“And indeed, we’ve seen other partners and other countries around the world also explore similar options,” a No 10 spokesperson said.

Asked about the comments, Mr Cleverly said: “Migration, by definition, is international. And the solutions, by definition, will be international.”

Insisting he was not talking about Mr Macron, Mr Cleverly went on to attack the “distasteful” and “lazy criticism” of Rwanda’s role in the partnership.

Referring to the African country, the home secretary – who has failed to deny that he previously called the deportation policy “bats***” – said: “It’s not as well blessed with natural mineral resources as some of its regional neighbours. And it is thinking creatively about how it can be part of the solution to a really serious global problem.

“And we are entering a partnership with this country. And as part of that partnership, there is a transfer of money.”

Mr Cleverly said those arguing Britain should not have “a grown-up commercial relationship with African countries” are in effect saying the UK should see them “exclusively through the prism of aid recipients”.

“What message is that sending to developing countries?” he asked.

The home secretary also stressed there was “no silver bullet” to solving the small boats crisis. And he insisted the Rwanda asylum scheme was not the centre of the government’s plan to prevent migrants from making the journey.

The international row erupted as the Rwanda bill finally became law after weeks of parliamentary deadlock.

On Monday, Mr Sunak vowed that the flights would start leaving within 10 to 12 weeks, but the government is braced for a series of legal challenges to the policy, partly from individuals who will argue they are too vulnerable to be deported.

The prime minister has promised multiple flights a month to Rwanda, but ministers concede that the number of people sent to Kigali will be small at first.

Chartered aircraft are expected to be used, with ministers claiming an airfield has been booked. However, the government has refused to give details of when and where any flights could depart amid fears operators could come under pressure to withdraw.

The plan came under fire for unilaterally designating Rwanda a safe country, in a bid to circumvent a damning ruling from the Supreme Court late last year that it was not a suitable place to send refugees.

In his speech, the French president did praise the military cooperation between the two countries: “The British are deep natural allies [for France] and the treaties that bind us together... lay a solid foundation.

"We have to follow them up and strengthen them, because Brexit has not affected this relationship.”

France should seek similar “partnerships” with fellow EU members, he added.

He also urged Europe to integrate its defences or risk dying at the hands of Russian aggression and American isolationism.

He said the EU is “too slow and lacks ambition” and he didn’t want the bloc to become a “vassal of the United States”.

“There is a risk Europe could die,” he said. “We are not equipped to face the risks. We must produce more, we must produce faster and we must produce as Europeans.”

Thursday’s speech was billed by Mr Macron’s advisers as France’s contribution to the EU’s strategic agenda for the next five years. The agenda is due to be decided after the European elections, which will take place in early June.

Nationalist right-wing parties, including the French opposition party National Rally, led by presidential rival Marine Le Pen, are currently leading in the polls.

Mr Macron hopes his speech will have the same impact as a similar address at the Sorbonne he made seven years ago that prefigured some significant EU policy shifts.

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