Rishi Sunak will use talks with President Emmanuel Macron to urge his French counterpart to “go further” in joint efforts to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats.
The prime minister is set to meet the French president in Paris on Friday where he will prioritise discussing his “stop the boats” plan.
Labour has called on the PM to pursue a bilateral returns agreement with Paris that would allow the UK to immediately return people arriving illegally in southern England to France – but such a deal is not expected to be looked at today.
The meeting is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough on such an accord, with British ministers and diplomats instead aiming to look at boosting police patrols on French beaches from where many small boat crossings begin.
It is understood the French government wants to agree a multi-year framework through which the UK would fund patrols to stop migrants making the channel crossing.
An Elysee official said this would allow them to “better plan our action and increase our ability in terms of resources”.
However, they also cautioned that this was “not the most operational answer to the migration issue”.
According to the Times newspaper, Mr Sunak is set to agree to demands for payments that could total hundreds of millions of pounds.
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.
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During a visit to Dover earlier this week he told reporters: “Certainly we are going in there with an ambition to go further on stopping the boats making these dangerous crossings.”
In a briefing on Wednesday before the talks, he added: “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 [in office].
“We want a EU-UK returns agreement and will push that forward.”
Sylvie Bermann, a former French Ambassador to the UK, dampened down the prospect of a returns agreement, telling Sky News: “We have twice as many asylum seekers than the UK so we take our part, I don’t think we’d be ready to take those people back.
“We are doing our best to prevent them crossing the Channel but I am not sure we will take them back.”
PM ‘could green-light new deal’ on patrols
There is already a multimillion-pound agreement in place with France designed to help prevent crossings and target human trafficking gangs.
A revised deal announced in November was worth around £63m, representing a hike of about £8m 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 it is understood that France has successfully prevented around the same number from embarking on the journey.
Reports suggest 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 for extra officers on the lookout on French beaches.
Labour said Mr Sunak will have “failed” if he comes back to the UK without a deal.
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 controversial Illegal Migration Bill.
The legislation announced on Tuesday would see asylum seekers who arrive through unauthorised means detained, deported and hit with a lifetime ban from returning.
Charities, the EU and human rights groups have argued the proposals aren’t legal while questions have also swirled about how they will work in practice.
Under the UN Refugee Convention, people escaping war or persecution cannot be forced to return there.
The government also can’t return people or send them to a ‘third’ country – like Rwanda – unless they have agreed to take them.
While the government has schemes in place for a limited number of Afghans, Ukrainians and people from Hong Kong, critics point out there is no legal route for asylum seekers from many other dangerous parts of the world.
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‘Beautiful renewed friendship’
This is the first Anglo-French summit since 2018 and both sides suggest that much of the work will focus on renewing cross-channel relations after a rocky diplomatic period.
The summit – a once regular event in the political calendar – has been revived by Mr Sunak after a five-year hiatus.
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
An Elysee official said “let’s be honest the relationship went through many difficulties” during the Brexit years.
But the source quoted the film Casablanca by adding that this summit “could be the beginning of a beautiful renewed friendship”.
The PM 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 Ms Braverman.
Defence issues are also expected to be covered with UK sources playing down tensions over the 2021 AUKUS defence pact between the UK, Australia and the USA.
Mr Sunak is expected to travel to North America to meet AUKUS partners within days of the Paris summit.