British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed on Friday to strengthen military ties between their countries and step up efforts to stop migrants crossing the English Channel, at a summit that marked a thaw in the relations after years of a Brexit-induced chill.
Sunak visited Paris as part of efforts to restore relations with France and other members of the European Union following tensions created by the UK’s departure from the EU.
In a cordial joint press conference, Sunak said his meeting with Macron, the first Franco-British summit since 2018, marked “a new beginning, a renewed understanding”.
It was also a chance to signal to Sunak’s Conservative Party and British voters that the government is making progress on its promise to stop migrants reaching the UK in small boats.
Britain has agreed to pay France more than 500 million euros over the next three years for measures including a detention center for migrants in northern France, a joint command center and more patrols on the French coast using drones and 500 additional French police officers.
It is the latest and biggest measure in years of efforts by the two countries to stop thousands of migrants congregating in northern France and then trying to reach the UK .
Britain has struck a series of deals with France over the years to increase beach patrols and share intelligence in a bid to disrupt smuggling gangs – all of which have had only a limited impact .
Macron and Sunak said enforcement had worked, resulting in the dismantling of more than 50 smuggling rings, 500 arrests and 1,300 boats prevented from starting.
Yet more than 45,000 people arrived in Britain by boat in 2022, up from 28,000 in 2021 according to an official UK count.
EU border agency Frontex reported 5,600 Channel crossings by asylum seekers and migrants in the first two months of the year, an 82% increase on the same period in 2022. She said the most common countries of origin were Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this very complicated problem, and it will not be solved overnight,” Sunak acknowledged.
THE The UK has announced controversial plans this week to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat, either to their country of origin or to “a safe third country”.
The move horrified refugees and human rights groups and faced enormous legal and logistical challenges, not least because almost no country has agreed to accept deportees.
Macron rejected any suggestion that France could strike such a deal with Britain, saying Britain should deal with the EU as a whole.
Humanitarian groups have criticized the Franco-British agreement. Christina Marriott, spokesperson for the British Red Cross, said “the focus on more detention in today’s deal with France is disappointing”.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International, said “Fortress Britain policies will not work” to address migration issues.
“Relations at rock bottom”
In recent years, relations between the UK and France have cooled amid post-Brexit rows over fishing rights and other issues, and hit rock bottom under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took pleasure in directing the French. His successor, Liz Truss, ruffled French feathers last year when she said “the jury is out” on whether Macron was friend or foe.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought Britain and its European neighbors closer to backing Kiev, and the mood improved after the pragmatic, technocratic Sunak came to power in October after the brief tenure and economically destabilizing of Truss.
Sunak’s visit also comes two weeks before King Charles III is due to travel to France and then Germany for his first state visits since becoming monarch.
France and the United Kingdom agreed on Friday to strengthen their military cooperation, in particular on the supply of weapons to kyiv and the training of Ukrainian Marines,
“In the short term, our objective is to help Ukraine carry out the counter-offensive that it wishes to carry out. Today’s priority is military,” Macron said. In the longer term, he said efforts should be directed towards “building a lasting peace, at the time and under the conditions that Ukraine chooses”.
The leaders also pledged to work for a permanent European maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific, in particular by coordinating the deployment in the region of the French aircraft carriers Charles de Gaulle and the British Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.
The improvement in relations comes after the UK and EU announced an agreement to resolve the dispute over post-Brexit trade deals for Northern Ireland, which had soured Britain’s relationship with the block.
Macron and Sunak met for more than an hour in private and showed respect and courtesy to each other in public.
Macron said Brexit had had “consequences” and that “some of those consequences have probably been underestimated, but we have to correct them”.
Sunak told Macron he felt “very lucky to serve alongside you, and incredibly excited about the future we can build together”, before concluding in French: “Merci mon ami” (“thank you my friend” ).