Sunak and Macron discuss migration, energy and security in Paris

British Prime Minister visits Paris seeking a deal on migrants, with energy security, Ukraine and the 'challenge posed by China' also on the agenda

French President Emmanuel Macron greets British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Elysee Palace, Paris, on Friday. AFP
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Rishi Sunak travelled to Paris on Friday to attend a summit with President Emmanuel Macron to agree on new approaches to shared challenges including migration, energy security, and the threat from Russia and other countries.

The UK Prime Minister was pictured arriving at the Elysee Palace where he was greeted by President Macron and a guard of honour. In a display of camaraderie, the two leaders posed for photographs with their arms around each other's shoulders.

Mr Sunak is meeting with the French President in what is the first UK-France summit in five years following years of strained relations under previous British governments.

The Conservative Party leader will reportedly announce that the UK will give France hundreds of millions of pounds in annual payments to invest in police, security and intelligence to stop the small boats — often used to ferry people across the Channel illegally — at their source. The payments, over a period of at least three years, are believed to amount to more than £200 million ($239 million) and will be used in part to step up beach patrols.

Britain has already given France more than £250 million since 2015, but the number of migrants arriving on small boats has continued to rise.

The UK government wants a bilateral returns agreement with Paris, which would allow London to immediately return those arriving unlawfully on British shores to France.

But a breakthrough is far from guaranteed because any deal on returning refugees will need to be signed off by EU member states, many of which have their own migration concerns.

Shortly after arriving at the Elysee Palace, Mr Sunak took to Twitter to make clear his intent to form a closer partnership with the Macron government.

“Close neighbours. Great friends. Historic allies,” he wrote. “It's great to be in Paris,” he added.

In a sign that the respect is mutual, President Macron shared a snap of himself and his guest on the steps of the French presidential palace with a message of hope for improved Franco-British relations.

“The destinies of the United Kingdom and France are linked,” Mr Macron wrote. “Our challenges, shared. Preservation of our planet, support for Ukraine, co-operation in matters of security and energy: we are moving forward together.”

Tensions in the bloc have come to the fore in recent months with some countries accusing Italy, Greece and Spain of failing to take back migrants under EU rules.

Speaking to reporters on the Eurostar to France, Mr Sunak said his government is ready to “pull all the leavers at our disposal” to stem the flow of boats.

Briefings from France have suggested a multi-year financing deal is on the table which could see Britain agree to pay millions of pounds to Paris in exchange for increased patrols on beaches in northern France, where small boats set off from.

Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman last year announced a £63 million agreement with France — following on from a £55 million deal in 2021 — to increase patrol officers by 40 per cent and allow British access to French border control rooms.

He said tackling illegal immigration to the UK from France is a “joint problem” for the two nations, adding: “I think it is wrong to characterise it as ‘we are paying someone else to do something else’.

“This is a shared and joint endeavour to reduce illegal migration more generally, and it’s not just a challenge that the French and ourselves face, it’s a broader European challenge.

“If we are investing money we want to make sure that that is going on things that we think will make a difference.

“So, you would always expect me to do that, and that’s why we would not invest any money alongside the French in a joint endeavour unless we thought it was going to go on things that will make a difference.”

Mr Macron is likely to focus on asking Downing Street to agree to a multiyear settlement, which would put “boots on the ground” on the beaches of northern France to thwart people smugglers.

However, French MEP Nathalie Loiseau said tackling illegal migration would not be “a primary goal” for Mr Macron.

Ms Loiseau, who also chairs the European Parliament's EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, said that because of Brexit, the UK was no longer in a position to directly negotiate the return of people who cross the Channel.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “We know that there is a concern within the British government around illegal migration and we will discuss it as well but it's not a primary goal of the summit.”

On a potential returns deal, Ms Loiseau added: “The UK decided to leave the European Union, so there is no bilateral agreement possible.

“It's in an EU competence and the UK should try to negotiate a deal with the European Union.

“This is not on the table, getting people back from the UK, but more can be done to fight against smugglers.”

The talks between the leaders come days after Mr Sunak and Ms Braverman — who will also meet her counterpart in the French capital on Friday — unveiled their Illegal Migration Bill.

Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron meet in Paris - in pictures

It is thought Mr Macron asked the Prime Minister how the bill can make Britain a less attractive destination for migrants.

“Our deep history, our proximity and our shared global outlook mean that a firm partnership between the UK and France is not just valuable, it is essential,” Mr Sunak said.

“From tackling the scourge of illegal migration to driving investment in one another’s economies, the work we do together improves the lives of each and every person in our countries.

“Beyond that, the UK and France also have a privileged role as defenders of European and global security.

“As we face new and unprecedented threats, it is vital that we fortify the structures of our alliance so we are ready to take on the challenges of the future.

“That is what we will do at the UK-France summit today.”

Mr Sunak was joined in Paris by his Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.

Mr Cleverly was greeted by Catherine Colonna, France's Foreign and European Affairs minister, upon arrival at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He said he expected the Prime Minister to “achieve a lot” at the summit.

Mr Cleverly told GB News: “I don't know if I would go as far as to describe it as a bromance but there is a very strong professional relationship between the UK and France. We don't agree on everything but we agree on a lot.”

The legislation announced on Tuesday will mean migrants who arrive through unauthorised means will be deported and hit with a lifetime ban from returning.

Tensions festered between London and Paris during Boris Johnson’s premiership, with Brexit causing friction and sparking disputes over fishing waters and trade.

And Liz Truss, Mr Sunak's predecessor, said the “jury is out” on whether Mr Macron was Britain’s friend.

Downing Street has 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 discussed.

But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed that Mr Sunak will be keen to raise his ambition of working more closely with France on the issue of Channel crossings.

The spokesman said: “Certainly we are going in there with an ambition to go further on stopping the boats making these dangerous crossings.”

He highlighted the multimillion-pound agreement already in place with France — designed to help prevent crossings and target human-trafficking gangs — as a pact to be built upon.

A revised deal announced in November was worth about £63 million ($74.5 million) in 2022-2023, representing a rise of about £8 million from a similar pledge signed in 2021.

Rishi Sunak visits the Home Office joint control centre in Dover — in pictures

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 a similar number from embarking on the journey.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, in a briefing ahead of the talks, said: “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 [of office].

“We want an 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.

“Increased co-operation, backed by increased funding, is helping to up the interception rates but clearly there is more to do.”

Elysee Palace sources have reportedly suggested a deal could be signed off on strengthening co-operation between the UK and France and managing the border through “multiyear financing”.

As part of their other discussions, the Prime Minister and the French President are expected to give the go-ahead to enhanced UK-France military co-ordination, including agreeing to scope the co-development of “next-generation deep precision strike weaponry”, No 10 said.

Officials said the allies hope the project produces the kind of long-range capability that Nato needs to “protect against the growing threat from Russia”.

The pair will also take steps to bolster Ukraine in its fight back against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops, with agreements on supplying weapons to Kyiv and working jointly to train Ukrainian marines.

The summit — a once-regular event in the political calendar that has been revived by Mr Sunak — is being viewed as a thawing in cross-Channel relations.

Mr Macron has been seen to be on more cordial terms with Mr Sunak than his predecessors, and the summit should be seen as the “beginning of a beautiful renewed friendship”, Paris sources said.

The French government sees it as an opportunity to reset the cross-Channel relationship.

“Our priority is to reconnect and get back into the habit of working together,” an Elysee Palace source said.

Mr Sunak’s spokesman said: “This year’s UK-France summit will be an opportunity to build on the strong foundations of our historic partnership, transforming the extensive work we do together as neighbours and allies to ensure we are taking on the challenges of the future together.”

Updated: March 10, 2023, 2:30 PM