Small boats policy: Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron strike deal on illegal Channel crossings

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The Prime Minister and the French president many have struck a deal about a new detention centre, but there is no news on a return agreement

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has agreed to a deal with the French President to tackle illegal immigration, that will see the UK pay almost half a billion pounds over the next three years - and a new detention centre established in France.

Rishi Sunak had said that he would be pushing Emmanuel Macron to “go further” on stopping small boats crossing the English Channel at Friday's UK-France summit, after the Tories announced their proposed new Illegal Migration Bill earlier this week.

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The bill, spearheaded by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, would see migrants arriving in the UK via unauthorised routes deported and possibly given a lifetime ban from re-seeking refuge.

Sunak took his new policy across the English Channel to push for action from the French side. The meeting between the two leaders marked the first time a UK-France summit has been held in five years, with the small boats issue dominating the relationship between the two nations in recent times.

What happened at the UK-France summit on Friday?

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hailed the UK-France summit as a “new beginning” between the two countries, and welcomed “important progress” on tackling illegal migration.

The UK has committed to sending Paris £478 million (541m euros) to fund a new package that will include hundreds of law enforcement officers patrolling French beaches, and building a new detention centre in France.

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But there was no sign of the returns agreement with France that the Government desires, as Mr Sunak made “stopping the boats” one of his top priorities.

The UK has already committed more than £300 million to France in the last decade to help tackle unauthorised migration. More than 3,000 people have already made the perilous sea journey this year, with almost 46,000 arriving by unofficial routes in 2022 - despite Sunak and Braverman announcing a £63 million package to increase patrol officers by 40% four months ago.

The first UK-France summit in five years will be dominated by the small boats issue (Credit: Getty Images)The first UK-France summit in five years will be dominated by the small boats issue (Credit: Getty Images)
The first UK-France summit in five years will be dominated by the small boats issue (Credit: Getty Images)

Ministers say twice as many unauthorised crossings were stopped last year than in the previous 12 months and hope new drones, aircraft and other surveillance technologies being funded will increase this.

Sunak said: “Last year I agreed the largest ever small boats deal with France to increase UK-funded patrols by 40%. This week I announced measures to ensure nobody who enters the UK illegally can remain here.

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“We don’t need to manage this problem, we need to break it. And today, we have gone further than ever before to put an end to this disgusting trade in human life. Working together, the UK and France will ensure that nobody can exploit our systems with impunity.”

What did Rishi Sunak say before meeting Emmanuel Macron?

The UK government was aiming to create a bilateral returns agreement with Paris. This would allow the UK to turn back boats crossing the Channel to France.

It was widely expected that France would not agree to such a resolution. Instead, ministers were hoping to influence Macron into pushing for a change in EU-wide returns to match that of the UK’s position.

While visiting Dover on Tuesday 7 March, the Prime Minister told reporters: “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.”

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Sunak’s official spokesman added in a briefing on Wednesday: “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).

“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.”

However, Sunak already faces pressure from opponents going into the meeting with Macron. Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “We need a new agreement with France.

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“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.”

Is France open to working with the UK on illegal migration?

After the summit, Macron told reporters the UK must negotiate its desired migrant return agreement with the EU rather than France.

He said: “This is not an agreement between the UK and France, but an agreement between the UK and the EU. Because the Dublin agreement are no more in a situation to be implemented, so this is something now to be negotiated.”

Sources close to the French government were briefed before the meeting that Paris would be open to signing off on “strengthening” work between the two nations on stopping illegal Channel crossings.

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Liz Truss, the previous PM, famously said during the Tory leadership election last year that the “jury is out” over whether Macron was a friend or foe to the UK. But Sunak appears to be fostering a warmer and closer relationship with the French leader.

The Prime Minister’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.” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace are set to join Sunak on his trip, as well as Braverman.

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