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.
Ahead of the summit in Paris, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly signalled more funding will be provided to the French authorities to step up beach patrols in a bid to tackle the problem.
Speaking to Sky News, the cabinet minister said both governments would be looking at closer cooperation and coordination.
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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 a deal, with British ministers and diplomats instead aiming to look at boosting police patrols on French beaches from where many small boat crossings set out.
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”.
Mr Cleverly said: “French and the British authorities have already been working together to prevent as much as possible people attempting to make that channel crossing.
“The French authorities have stopped around half of the attempted crossings and through closer coordination, a greater cooperation, we’re hoping to be able to stop more.”
Highlighting the funding already provided to help France tackle the crossings, Mr Cleverly said: “This is a model that has proved its effectiveness. We want to make it even more effective still and of course, we will be negotiating about what the funding of additional work by the French authorities will be.”
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.”
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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.
Labour’s shadow Home Office minister Stephen Kinnock told Sky News a returns agreement “has to be top of the list”.
He said: “With all the best efforts of the security patrols, it’s going to be very difficult, given the sheer numbers and the sheer size of that coastline.”
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 are not legal while there are also questions over 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 cannot 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.
Tensions festered between London and Paris during Boris Johnson’s premiership over Brexit, and 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 quoted the film Casablanca by adding that this summit “could be the beginning of a beautiful renewed friendship”.
This was echoed by Mr Cleverly, who said: “France is our nearest neighbour, a close ally, a good friend.”