UK prime minister Rishi Sunak will urge French president Emmanuel Macron on Friday to step up joint efforts to tackle cross-Channel migration in small boats, at the first UK-France summit for five years.
Sunak will press Macron to encourage the EU to reach a returns agreement with Britain, allowing London to send back people arriving via illegal routes to their country of departure, British officials said.
The failure of Boris Johnson, former prime minister, to negotiate a returns agreement with the EU as part of his 2019 Brexit deal has been criticised by some academics.
Britain had previously hoped it could strike a bilateral returns deal with France and other countries, but Paris has insisted such an accord would have to be negotiated with the EU.
France also has little appetite for a bilateral agreement with the UK that would leave it with more responsibility for returning migrants than other EU countries because of its proximity to Britain.
Sunak’s spokesperson, speaking ahead of the UK-France summit in Paris, said: “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.”
Until the end of the post-Brexit transition period in December 2020, the UK was part of the Dublin regulation, an EU mechanism that allows for the transfers of asylum seekers to other members that the migrants had transited en route to the UK.
During the Brexit negotiations, however, the UK offered European countries what leading immigration barrister Colin Yeo said was an “unbalanced” agreement, where the UK assumed the right to return immigrants to Dublin member states while taking on few obligations. As a result, no deal was reached.
“The EU just said, ‘We’re not doing that’,” Yeo said.
A bilateral deal to curb small boat crossings announced last November involved the UK paying France £63mn in 2022-23, a rise of about £8mn from a similar pledge in 2021.
Under the deal the number of French officers patrolling beaches on the country’s northern coast rose from 200 to 300, while British officers were allowed to act as observers in French control rooms for the first time.
But Downing Street has insisted the summit is not about “one issue” and there will be agreements on defence co-operation and nuclear energy.
“The UK and France have a privileged role as defenders of European and global security,” Sunak said. “As we face new and unprecedented threats, it is vital we fortify the structures of our alliance.”
The two sides will agree to step up UK-France military interoperability and industrial co-operation, and agree to co-operate on supplying equipment and training to Ukraine’s armed forces.
In a sign of Sunak’s desire to bring Britain closer to its former EU partners, he will announce that the UK will host in 2024 the fourth meeting of a new European Political Community.
The EPC was a Macron initiative, intended to boost security co-operation in Europe, including EU members but also countries such as Turkey and Balkan states. Liz Truss, former prime minister, attended the first such meeting in Prague last year.
The two leaders will also agree to co-ordinate their deployment of military forces, notably aircraft carriers, in the Indo-Pacific region. Britain has two carriers and France one.