Sunak to push Macron to ‘go further’ on joint efforts to stop small boats

Rishi Sunak will use talks with President Emmanuel Macron to push for France to “go further” on joint efforts to prevent migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats, No 10 said.

The Prime Minister is set to meet his French counterpart in Paris on Friday as part of the first UK-France summit in five years.

High on the priority list for their discussions will be the problem of migrants crossing from the large stretch of coastline in northern France to southern England, often making the perilous sea journey in flimsy dinghies.

The UK Government is known to want a bilateral returns agreement with Paris, a deal that would allow London to immediately return those arriving on British shores unlawfully from France.

The meeting is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough on such an accord, with British ministers and diplomats instead privately aiming to cajole Mr Macron’s administration into being a driving force behind an EU-wide returns agreement with the UK.

Labour said Mr Sunak will have “failed” if he comes back to the UK without a returns agreement.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “We need a new agreement with France.

“Rishi Sunak will have failed if he comes back from the summit without a new returns agreement and new joint arrangements to prevent dangerous boat crossings.”

The talks between the leaders come days after Mr Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who will also meet with her counterpart in the French capital on Friday, unveiled the Illegal Migration Bill.

The legislation announced on Tuesday would see migrants who arrive through unauthorised means deported and hit with a lifetime ban from returning.

It is thought Mr Macron is likely to want to hear from the Prime Minister about how the Bill will make Britain a less attractive destination for migrants.

Downing Street stressed that the gathering at the Elysee Palace “isn’t a summit on a single issue”, with energy security, the conflict in Ukraine and the “challenge posed by China” likely to be touched upon.

But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed Mr Sunak will look to raise his ambitions of working more closely on the issue of Channel crossings.

The spokesman told reporters: “Certainly we are going in there with an ambition to go further on stopping the boats making these dangerous crossings.”

Migrant Channel crossing incidents
Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron are expected to discuss the UK Government’s Illegal Migration Bill (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The No 10 official pointed to the multimillion-pound agreement already in place with France, designed to help prevent crossings and target human trafficking gangs, as a pact to be built upon.

A revised deal announced in November was worth around £63 million, representing a hike of about £8 million from a similar pledge signed in 2021.

Under the commitment, the number of French officers patrolling beaches on the country’s northern coastline rose from 200 to 300, while British officers for the first time were also permitted to be stationed in French control rooms and on the approaches to beaches to observe operations.

Nearly 3,000 people have arrived via small boats in the UK already this year but the PA news agency understands that France has successfully prevented around the same number from embarking on the journey.

It was reported by the Daily Express that Mr Sunak is ready to green light a deal that would secure a multi-year migration agreement with Paris, which would include Britain paying millions of pounds to France every year to increase the number of patrol officers on French beaches.

The Prime Minister told a select group of reporters during a visit to Dover on Tuesday: “We want to work together with the French so we can build on the joint approach we agreed last year and keep stepping up patrols and enforcement activity to clamp down on the gangs and stop more boats.

“This Friday’s summit will be an opportunity to do just that.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, in a briefing on Wednesday ahead of the talks, said there was “clearly more to do” to prevent crossings.

He said: “I think 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 (of office).

Average number of people per boat detected crossing the English Channel
(PA Graphics)

“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.

“Increased co-operation, backed by increased funding, is helping to up the interception rates but clearly there is more to do.”

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

The summit – a once regular event in the political calendar that has been revived by Mr Sunak – is being viewed as a thawing in cross-Channel relations.

Tensions festered between London and Paris during Boris Johnson’s premiership, with Brexit causing frictions and sparking disputes over fishing grounds and trade.

During Liz Truss’s brief time as prime minister, she said the “jury is out” on whether Mr Macron was Britain’s friend.

But Mr Macron has been seen to be on more cordial terms with Mr Sunak than the Prime Minister’s predecessors, with Paris sources reportedly briefing that the summit should be seen as the “beginning of a beautiful renewed friendship”.

Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “This year’s UK-France summit will be an opportunity to build on the strong foundations of our historic partnership, transforming the extensive work we do together as neighbours and allies to ensure we are taking on the challenges of the future together.”

The Prime Minister is set to be joined in France by members of his Cabinet, with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also travelling, along with Mrs Braverman.