The UK and the EU agreed to build a new working arrangement to “strengthen co-operation” on migration at a European summit, Downing Street said, despite the host country downplaying the event’s focus on border issues.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, underlined a “shared interest” in tackling cross-border crime and people trafficking during a bilateral talk at the Council of Europe meeting in Iceland on Tuesday, according to No 10.
The arrangement would see British agencies working with Frontex, the EU border force, on “critical operational and strategic challenges including the situation in the Channel”, a Downing Street spokesman said.
The UK and the EU will discuss “the details and operationalisation of this new working arrangement”, they added.
Mr Sunak had sought to make migration a key topic at the summit in Reykjavik, warning leaders that the international system for policing human trafficking is “not working”.
He also called for reforms to Strasbourg measures which have hampered his plan to send migrants to Rwanda, as well as advocating for sustained support to Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia’s invasion.
In his remarks at the council’s opening session, the Prime Minister cited Winston Churchill as one of the “founding fathers” of the organisation who helped champion its values of “freedom, democracy and the rule of law”.
“We will hold Russia accountable for the horrendous war crimes that have been committed,” Mr Sunak said.
“And we must also learn the lesson of this war – by being prepared to confront threats to our societies before they become too big to deal with.
“That includes acting on cybersecurity and AI, and it means tackling illegal migration.”
He told leaders they need to “do more to co-operate” on stopping boats crossing the Channel, adding: “The council already plays a vital role but I urge leaders to consider how we can go further.”
But Iceland’s foreign affairs minister Thordis Kolbrun Gylfadottir suggested migration was not top of the agenda, telling the BBC’s World At One programme: “This summit doesn’t have a big focus on migration in general.”
Mr Sunak also held talks with the president of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Siofra O’Leary, over a review of the working of Rule 39 – the order that blocked the inaugural flight to Kigali in Rwanda last year.
He said he would use the conversation to talk about the importance of ensuring Strasbourg acts in a way that is “fair, transparent and effective”.
He insisted the UK would be “building on” its record of leading reform of the ECHR, citing the Brighton Declaration on human rights cases as an example.
People trafficking came up in the Prime Minister’s bilateral meeting with Dutch leader Mark Rutte, with whom he agreed to “tackle the scourge” by working together “both bilaterally and through forums such as the European Political Community”, according to Downing Street.
At the summit, Mr Sunak said European communities and the world’s most vulnerable people are “paying the price” for the failure to prevent unlawful migration.
It comes as his Conservative administration attempts to pass into law measures designed to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats.
The Illegal Migration Bill aims to send asylum seekers who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes back home or to a third country such as Rwanda, as well as cutting the daily £5.5 million cost of housing migrants who make it to the UK.
No 10 said the Government “remains committed” to reducing net migration amid speculation it could pass the one million mark next year.
It follows reports that the Home Office has privately shared figures with No 10 suggesting more than 1.1 million foreign workers and students could legally arrive in Britain in 2024/25, just as the Tories face a general election test.
Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “I won’t get into specific pieces of advice that go between departments and No 10.
“The Government remains committed to reducing net migration over time while ensuring the economy has the skills we need.”
He said there is no specific target on reducing migration numbers and the “priority is tackling illegal migration in the first instance”.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove, speaking about the one million number, said: “I don’t think it will reach those figures.”
But the Housing Secretary added that “the numbers recently have been at a level where there is an inevitable pressure on housing and on public services”.
The Leave campaigner said a “critical part of Brexit” was being able to “say this is the level of migration we as a country believe is right” and establishing “there is a limit”.
Official figures to be released later this month are expected to show net migration of between 650,000 and 997,000 in 2022.
The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto pledged overall migrant numbers would “come down”.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman argued in a speech at Monday’s National Conservatism conference that Britain “must not lose sight of the importance of controlling legal migration”, as well as preventing people from entering through unauthorised channels.
The Council of Europe was established after the Second World War to uphold democracy and freedom throughout the continent.
Tuesday’s gathering is only the fourth time the institution, which counts 46 countries as members, has met since its founding in 1949.
The meeting, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to join virtually, focused on the situation in his country and how international allies can hold Russia to account for breaches of international law since the invasion.
The Prime Minister will sign the UK up to the Register of Damages to ensure the people of Ukraine are compensated for losses incurred as a result of the war, No 10 said.
The register is a mechanism to record and document evidence and claims of damage, loss or injury as a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine.