Rishi Sunak seeks improved bilateral relations on France and US trips

The PM will discuss illegal migration during his meeting with Emmanuel Macron in Paris

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Downing Street. AP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Rishi Sunak is preparing to take part in some of his most crucial diplomatic talks with allies since entering office, with key policies at stake.

The UK Prime Minister will arrive in Paris on Friday for the first UK-French bilateral summit since 2018 with the issue of illegal Channel boat crossings front and centre in his mind. He will then head to the US to meet President Joe Biden to set a new course for Britain's global security outlook, and try to clinch a visit by the US leader to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Sunak will be hoping to build on improved UK-EU relations since striking a deal on the Windsor Framework and to make headway on his pledge to “stop the boats”. The framework helped stabilise relations with the EU and offered signs of progress to Mr Biden on Northern Ireland.

He will be joined by Home Secretary Suella Braverman for the discussions, which come days after she unveiled the Conservative government’s Illegal Migration Bill, its controversial plan to dramatically reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving in Britain.

UK 'looking to do more' with France to stop the boats

While the frosty UK-EU relations seen during previous administrations appear to have thawed, Mr Sunak’s willingness to work with his European counterparts in a constructive manner does not make breaking people smugglers’ networks easy. Mr Sunak knows that for his anti-illegal immigration policy to succeed he will need the co-operation of Mr Macron.

Keen to show his commitment to British voters on ending illegal immigration, Mr Sunak sent Ms Braverman to Paris just three weeks into his tenure in No 10 to sign a £62 million-a-year deal to ramp up efforts to stop migrant crossings.

Asked if the public should expect to see a new agreement between the two nations on tackling illegal crossings following Friday’s summit, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman left the door open.

“Migration, I am sure, will be a topic on Friday,” the spokesman told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s an issue that’s not new to the UK and indeed France are themselves looking to take a number of steps [to stop illegal migration].

“In terms of agreements, of course we continue to work with EU countries both at EU-level and bilaterally but equally with France we have a relatively new or expanded work tackling small boats crossings in the Channel and we’re looking to do more.”

An aide to Mr Macron suggested France and Britain are working on a new deal to thwart migrants crossing the Channel, which could be agreed at the summit. “We are in the process of finalising the terms of a strengthening of our operational co-operation”, he said.

The deal would focus on “increasing the resources deployed to manage this common border, with multiyear financing in order to improve the planning of human resources, equipment and infrastructure”, the aide said.

Britain agreed to pay France another 72.2 million euros ($74.5 million) under a deal last November that aimed to send an additional 350 people to detect and prevent migrant boat crossings.

About 800 people including regular police, border control forces and customs officers are involved daily in anti-migrant operations in northern France, according to recent figures from French authorities.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Cop27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh. PA

Even if Mr Sunak has no new agreement to present to the UK public following his discussions with Mr Macron, he will probably use the engagement to emphasise his commitment to working with France to bring an end to the small boats crisis.

Mr Sunak in January asked the public to judge his premiership on five key pledges, including a bid to end the practice of illegal immigration across the Channel.

Conservative MP Tim Loughton at the time told The National the Prime Minister would find it impossible to achieve his aim without the co-operation of France.

“The trouble is the power is not in the UK’s hands, so the issue is that as soon as a boat hits British territorial waters it becomes our problem and becomes our responsibility”, Mr Loughton said.

First US trip as PM

After the meeting in Paris, it will be on to the US for Mr Sunak early next week for his first transatlantic trip since taking office last October.

The Tory leader will touch down in San Diego for talks with US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

The procurement of nuclear-powered submarines under the Aukus pact between the three nations will be high on the agenda.

Mr Sunak’s trip to California, where he has previously lived, will coincide with the government’s publication of a much-anticipated update to the Integrated Review.

An update of the major defence and security review was ordered by Mr Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss last September to ensure the UK is “keeping pace” with evolving threats, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Sunak will make a statement on the publication during his trip to the US, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“I can say the Prime Minister will be in the US on Monday for discussions on Aukus with President Biden and Australian Prime Minister Albanese,” he said.

“On Monday the government will also publish the update to the Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy.”

Mr Sunak’s visit will take place during what will be a significant week for his leadership, with the Spring Budget due to be unveiled next Wednesday.

The Prime Minister is under pressure from the Ministry of Defence to increase spending.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who has been arguing for a multibillion increase in his budget, last week said he was “confident” he would get enough funds to meet the needs of the military.

Defence minister James Heappey on Wednesday acknowledged there has been tough talks between the ministry and the Treasury over funding levels.

“There have been some robust exchanges with the Treasury in public”, he said.

“And there have been some even more robust exchanges behind closed doors.”

As the Conservative Party continues to trail Labour in opinion polls at home, Mr Sunak will be hoping his overseas engagements improve his image as a capable statesman at a time when the UK is facing multiple challenges, including the migration crisis and the high cost of living.

Updated: March 08, 2023, 4:25 PM