Rishi Sunak rebukes Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of Rwanda plan

The French president criticised the controversial Rwanda plan during a flagship speech on the future of Europe at Sorbonne University in Paris
The French president criticised the Rwanda plan during a speech on the future of Europe at Sorbonne University in Paris - Christophe Petit Tesson

Downing Street has rebuked Emmanuel Macron over his criticism of the Rwanda policy after the French president described it as a “betrayal of values.”

Mr Macron used a speech in Paris on Thursday to suggest the policy would prove “totally ineffective” and that using third countries to handle asylum seekers created a “geopolitics of cynicism”.

Rishi Sunak’s spokesman rejected the criticism and said: “We don’t agree. We think that our approach is the right one.

“In terms of breaking the business model of the criminal gangs, we’ll need a strong deterrent.

“We need to make clear that if you come here on a small boat you won’t be able to stay. That is how we will break that business model. And indeed, we’ve seen other partners and other countries around the world explore similar options.”

James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, also hit back, saying that third-party agreements to tackle migration were “not anything new” and were recognised as international solutions to the illegal migration crisis.

“We always rely on third countries. That’s not anything new. That was why I went to Italy. We work with the French. We rely in large part on the French, that’s a third country. They work with us, we work closely,” he said.

“The point is, we do rely on other countries. That will always be the case because migration, by definition, is international and the solutions will, by definition, be international.”

James Cleverly
The Home Secretary, on a tour of police patrol boat in Lampedusa Port, Italy, said third-party agreements to tackle migration were 'not anything new' - Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Mr Cleverly also appeared to downplay the importance of the Rwanda scheme. Asked at a lunch with journalists if it was central to his plan to tackle illegal migration, he said: “No, it’s not.” Asked again whether the political rhetoric put it at the centre of his plan, he said: “Not mine.”

That contrasts with the Prime Minister, who has made Rwanda a key part of his pledge to stop the boats.

Mr Macron made his comments during a speech on the future of Europe at Sorbonne University in Paris in which he warned the EU was in “mortal” danger from rising nationalism and fragmentation.

In a clear reference to the Rwanda plan, he said: “I also do not believe in this model that some people want to put in place which means that you go and look for a third country, for example in Africa, and take people who arrived illegally on our soil there who don’t come from that country.”

“This will create a geopolitics of cynicism that is a betrayal of our values. It will create new dependencies and will prove totally ineffective.”

His comments came after the Rwanda bill was finally passed in Westminster on Monday night, just hours before five migrants, including a seven-year-old girl, drowned in the English Channel. It was given royal assent on Thursday.

This week, Rishi Sunak revealed plans to get the first flights taking illegal migrants to Rwanda in the air in the next 10 to 12 weeks. The Prime Minister said this would begin a “drum beat” of multiple flights every month.

Mr Macron’s two-hour speech has been dubbed Sorbonne II after a first seminal oration in 2017 laying out his vision for European “sovereignty”. Since then, he said, the continent had been through various “unprecedented crises”.

He then singled out Brexit, calling it “an explosion whose destructive effects we have witnessed ever since”, meaning that “today nobody really dares propose leaving Europe or the euro”.

Elsewhere in the speech, Mr Macron warned Europe “can die”, and declared the US was more concerned about “themselves” and China than the Continent.

Mr Macron called on the EU to deepen European defence cooperation in a “paradigm shift” and then suggested France’s nuclear arsenal could provide security guarantees to the EU.

“Nuclear deterrence is a credible deterrent and therefore an essential element in the defence of the European continent,” he said.

Mr Macron said Russia must not be allowed to win in Ukraine, and he called for a boost in Europe’s cybersecurity capacity and the creation of a European academy to train high-ranking military personnel.

“There is no defence without a defence industry... we’ve had decades of under-investment,” he said, adding that Europeans should give preference to buying European military equipment.

“We must produce more, we must produce faster, and we must produce as Europeans,” Mr Macron said.

Mr Macron said the EU had to punch its geopolitical weight in the world and prove “that it’s never going to be the lapdog of the United States and know how to speak with all of the other regions of the world.”

“We’re reacting too slowly [...] whichever way you look at it, the United States have two priorities; Themselves. That’s fair enough. And the Chinese matter. Europe is far behind. It’s not a priority for their geopolitical view,” he said.

He went on to praise France’s “unprecedented” military co-operation with its British “deep and natural allies” via the Lancaster House treaties and said these “solid foundations” should be “pursued and strengthened as Brexit has not affected this relationship”.

“Perhaps we should even widen these to other partners via the European Political Community”, which links the EU to 17 non-EU countries, including the UK, he added.

Mr Macron also called for a “revision” of EU trade policy to defend European interests, accusing both China and the United States of no longer respecting the rules of global commerce by “over subsidising” critical sectors.

It is not the first time Mr Macron has attacked Britain over its asylum policy.  Two years ago, when Paris and London were at odds over the small boats issue, he said migrants were attracted to the UK by an “economic model that “depends on illegal work by foreigners”.

In the UK, Sir John Hayes, a former home office and security minister, said the French president should put his own house in order before he started lecturing Britain.

“France’s colonial history is not one which anyone would wish to emulate. He may have particular problems with places beyond France itself and I wonder if that influences his prejudices,” said Sir John, chairman of the Common Sense group of Tory MPs.

“France is also paid an enormous amount of money to help it deal with the migrants who are surging through that country on their way to Calais to cross the Channel illegally with impunity.

“It is pretty rich for him to lecture us for both those reasons. Mr Macron should put his house in order before he tells us what to do.”

The French president was advised to 'put his own house in order before lecturing Britain'
The French president was advised to 'put his own house in order before lecturing Britain' - CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

David Jones, the Tory MP and former cabinet minister, said, “Mr Macron’s criticism might be more tenable if, in return for the £500 million the UK pays to France, he were to tell  French police to stop illegal migrants boarding their dinghies on the Channel beaches, rather than standing by and watching them.”

Former minister Tim Loughton, a member of the Home Affairs Committee, accused Mr Macron of hypocrisy when France had participated in EU and UN schemes to resettle migrants from Libya to Rwanda.

“President Macron has foisted his problem on us and now has the temerity to criticise us pursuing practical solutions,” he said.

“If the French authorities guarded their own borders better, arrested those with no right to be in France as we would in the UK and then intercepted them and brought them back to French shores rather than point them in the direction of Dover and wave them merrily on their way then we would not need to look at the Rwanda scheme in the first place.

“It is also deeply hypocritical when France has been a party to EU and UN schemes resettling migrants from Libya to... wait for it... Rwanda.”

Nigel Farage, the former leader of the Brexit Party, said: “The Macron plan seems to be to allow countless millions to cross the Mediterranean and then fail to integrate into EU countries. That is a real betrayal of values.”

The Rwanda plan has also been criticised by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner.

Mark Francois, the chairman of the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteer backbench MPs, said, “So much for the Entente Cordiale: what a bloomin’ cheek!”

He added, “If the French police, who we heavily, subsidise, were better at doing their job, we wouldn’t need a Rwanda Act in the first place. The French did a better job of guarding Buckingham Palace recently than they do of guarding their own coast!”

France, like the UK, is a member of the non-EU Council of Europe and signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Other European countries, such as Denmark and Germany, are considering the offshore processing of asylum seekers with policies that have similarities to the Rwanda plan.

Italy has struck a deal with non-EU Albania to host and process migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill gained royal assent on Thursday after the Lords finally dropped its opposition to the legislation designating the country as safe.

But a YouGov poll has revealed only a third of Tory voters believe Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda deportation plan will succeed.

On Monday, Home Office figures showed that the number of migrants arriving by small boats across the Channel had increased by 24 per cent to 6,265 in the first four months of this year, compared with 5,049 last year.

The pre-Brexit Dublin Agreement allowed the UK to return migrants to “safe” EU countries where they should have claimed asylum if they had passed through them. This was scrapped under Brexit and has not been replaced.

This week, Lord Cameron indicated that this was the reason why Britain can no longer return Channel migrants to France.

In March last year, Rishi Sunak and Mr Macron agreed a deal to tackle the small boats illegally crossing the Channel.

Under its terms, Britain agreed to pay France about £480 million and fund a detention centre over three years. Paris agreed to increase patrols of its beaches.

At the time, Mr Macron said the UK should try and strike a replacement EU-wide migrant returns deal but that has been ruled out for the foreseeable future by European Commission sources.


The Rwanda scheme isn't a migrant deterrent – it's a voter distraction

Read more

Mr Macron’s speech came ahead of June’s European Parliament elections where nationalists stand to make gains, notably in France where the National Rally is polling way ahead of the president’s Renew group (31 per cent to 17.5 per cent in one survey).

“European ideas have, in a way, won the day as all the nationalists across Europe are not saying that they are going to leave the euro or Europe”, he claimed.

However, he said Europe “could die through a sort of trick of history” if it succumbed to nationalist who claim: “I won’t stop everything that Europe has done, but I’ll make it simpler, I’ll do it by not respecting the rules, I’ll do it by sapping its foundations.”

In a further apparent broadside against Brexiters, the French president warned that the only way to stand up to nationalists was “through audacity”, in the same breath saying that later this year “the British will choose their future, the Americans will choose theirs”.

Also in his speech, Mr Macron said the use of social networks by children under 15 should be subject to parental controls in the European Union.

“Before 15 years of age, there should be parental control on access to this digital space,” he said.

“If the content isn’t checked, this access produces all kinds of risks and mental distortions, which can justify all kinds of hatred.”

Mr Macron said he disagreed with the “Anglo-Saxon” approach of “delegating” checks to “private players” who have been found wanting and that the EU must “take back control” of the issue.

France has seen repeated violent incidents in recent years involving minors’ access to the internet, including the 2020 beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who showed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in an ethics class about free speech.

The attacker who killed Paty, an 18-year-old radicalised Islamist, found out about the class from social media posts.

Social media apps such as TikTok were also believed to play a role in riots that spread across many cities in France after police shot dead a teenager, Nahel Merzouk, during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb in 2023.