UK and Spain in row over Sunak demand for focus on illegal migration

Rishi Sunak
A foreign diplomatic source told The Telegraph that Rishi Sunak had ‘caused havoc’ - Yui Mok/PA

Britain and Spain are locked in a diplomatic row after Rishi Sunak demanded that illegal migration be the focus of a meeting of European leaders next week.

The Prime Minister wants the European Political Community (EPC) summit to make the issue its top priority as he continues attempts to tackle the Channel crossings crisis.

But Madrid is resisting the demand, instead wanting the gathering of almost 50 leaders to focus on artificial intelligence, the war in Ukraine and graduate mobility.

A foreign diplomatic source told The Telegraph that Mr Sunak had “caused havoc”, and that French officials had been brought in to mediate between the sides.

“The British are starting to cause havoc over the next EPC,” the source said. “They want to overhaul the entire agenda to replace it with migration, which is not planned today. They are taking advantage of what’s happened in the Mediterranean to try and impose their own agenda on the Channel.”

A second European diplomat said Britain had “pushed” for the agenda to be switched, but said the efforts were “not going to go anywhere”.

Illegal migration is a growing problem across Europe, with Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, warning that leaders needed to make a “paradigm change” to cope with mass arrivals from Africa.

Her comments came after more than 10,000 migrants arrived on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, prompting several EU member states to throw up new border controls in response.

The European Commission this week sent a warning to EU member states to only erect new controls as a “last resort” amid fears the bloc’s Schengen free-travel zone is being put under significant pressure by swathes of migrant arrivals.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, called for more international cooperation to tackle the surge of arrivals from North Africa, suggesting Paris could also push for future talks on the issue.

Other European leaders have echoed Mr Sunak’s call for action on illegal immigration, including Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president.

Speaking during a trip to Lampedusa earlier this month, she said: “I came here to say to all of you: Migration is a European challenge that requires a European solution.”

But Spain is understood to be less concerned, especially as migrants arriving on its shores often move on to other countries in Europe.

Relations between Mr Sunak and his European counterparts appear to be faltering ahead of next year’s general election, while Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is attempting to forge new alliances.

The third meeting of the EPC, including the EU’s 27 member states plus 20 other countries, will be held in Granada, Spain on Oct 5. Downing Street has confirmed that the Prime Minister intends to take part in the one-day summit, with Britain set to host the fourth scheduled gathering next spring.

Spanish diplomats told their British counterparts that London would have ample opportunity to introduce talks on small boats when it hosts the fourth meeting, a source said.

A senior UK government source claimed Spain had been consistently uninterested in discussing how to tackle illegal migration, saying: “They are the least interested of all the European countries on this issue.”

Mr Sunak has made stopping small boats crossing the English Channel one of his five priorities. More than 20,000 migrants have made the journey this year, although that is lower than last year.

Tensions between the Prime Minister and the Spanish leadership emerged shortly after Sir Keir went on a three-stop global trip to meet other world leaders.

The Labour leader talked about his own small boats plan in The Hague before meeting Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, and then visiting Paris to hold talks with Mr Macron.

Meanwhile, Suella Braverman wanred that migration is putting “unsustainable” pressure on housing, NHS and schools.

The Home Secretary doubled down on warnings over the impact of migration in face of a backlash from refugee groups, charities and even some Tory MPs, who criticised her “unhelpful,” “poorly judged” and “emotive” language for detracting from her legitimate message.

After criticising the “outdated” UN Refugee Convention for creating “huge incentives” for illegal migration, she warned that legal migration was also contributing to unsustainable pressure on public services in the UK.

Mrs Braverman has been pressing Rishi Sunak for additional measures to crackdown on legal migration, which has hit a record 606,000 net inflow.

“It’s right that we ask for greater collaboration at the international level amongst like-minded partners and, ultimately, the UK cannot sustain such levels of illegal migration, or indeed, legal migration,” she told PA in an interview during her three-day trip to the US.

“There is unsustainable pressure on our schools, unsustainable pressure on our health services, unsustainable pressure on our housing capacity.  It is right and it’s indeed the prudent thing for political leaders to call this out and take steps to address it.”

She denied that she was lacking in compassion after claiming that British culture would disappear if immigration remains uncontrolled. She warned that it posed an “existential” threat to nations in the West.

She also said it was “flippant” to suggest that she was in Washington DC to boost her credentials as the next Conservative leader. “With respect, that is a slightly flippant interpretation of what is a very serious issue,” she said.

However, at home there was concern that her language threatened to undermine her legitimate argument that the UN refugee convention needed to be reformed.

Mrs Braverman said the definition of a refugee had become too broad and should be tightened. Branding the convention outdated, Braverman said it should not be used to grant protection to people who fear discrimination in their home country simply on the basis of being gay or a woman.

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Commons Justice Committee, said the Home Secretary was right to call for a rethink of the Convention, which had morphed into allowing asylum to those who were victims of discrimination rather than its original terms of persecution.

“The language was very unhelpful because the examples were clumsily chosen. The talk of existential threats diminished the credibility of the more important point,” he said.

“The language and tone was poorly judged which was regrettable because there was a serious point that she was seeking to raise and which we all need to grapple with.

“It is an emotive subject which is why we should avoid emotive language about it on either side of the debate. When you start putting it into very emotive rhetoric both sides almost shut down the debate. We are not taken seriously because we are thought to be tub thumpers.”

A former minister said: “It was a legitimate speech for the Home Secretary to make but she embellished it and it is unclear why she had to do it in the US.”

One MP told Sky News her language was “uncomfortably right-wing”, while another, responding to Mrs Braverman’s claim that multiculturalism had failed, said: “She can f*** off and do it from the back benches.”

She also faced criticism from Sir Elton John, who warned that her suggestion that being gay should not by itself warrant refugee protection would “legitimise hate and violence” against LGBT+ people.