Rishi Sunak to put pressure on France to 'go further' to stop small boat Channel crossings

Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron appeared to be on very good terms as they met at the Élysée Palace. Credit: PA

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is to use talks with Emmanuel Macron to urge France to “go further” on joint efforts to prevent people crossing the English Channel in small boats, No 10 has said.

Mr Sunak met his French counterpart in Paris on Friday as part of the first UK-France summit in five years.

The pair appeared to be on very good terms as they walked arm in arm into the Élysée Palace.

High on the priority list for their discussions will be the issue 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 talks between the leaders will come days after Mr Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman - who will also meet with her counterpart in the French capital on Friday - unveiled their controversial new Illegal Migration Bill on Tuesday. The legislation, dubbed the "stop the boats" plan, would see people who arrive through unauthorised means will force detention on virtually everyone who enters the UK illegally and make it impossible for most of them to claim asylum.

Ms Braverman has already admitted the policy will push the "boundaries of international law” and the first page of the Bill also points out it may not stay within human rights laws - but Mr Sunak said they're "up for the fight" if it's taken to the courts.

The UK Government is known to also 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.

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.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has staked his premiership on stopping Channel crossings, among other priorities Credit: Leon Neal/PA

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

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, according to the PA news agency, France has successfully prevented around the same number from embarking on the journey.

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.”

What are the main points of the government's Illegal Immigration Bill unveiled this week?

  • There will be a duty placed on the home secretary to detain anyone who arrives in the UK illegally, except the seriously ill and children

  • It will no longer be possible for people who enter the UK illegally to claim asylum

  • Anyone who crosses the English Channel to enter Great Britain will be deported, either to a safe third country, Rwanda - with which the government has signed an asylum deal - or back to their home nation if it is not dangerous. Only those too ill to fly, people under 18 or migrants at serious risk of irreversible harm if they are deported will avoid relocation

  • Those who do enter illegally will be banned from ever returning

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). “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.”

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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,' before later backtracking. 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.