Britain to give France $781m to help stop small boat crossings

France's President Emmanuel Macron (right) speaking to British PM Rishi Sunak at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 10, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Friday that Britain will give France 480 million pounds (S$781 million) over three years to invest in police, technology and intelligence to help reduce the number of asylum seekers arriving on its shores in small boats.

Mr Sunak has made stopping boat arrivals one of his five key priorities.

The number of migrants arriving on the south coast of England soared to more than 45,000 last year.

“We don’t need to manage this problem, we need to break it,” Mr Sunak said at a press conference alongside French President Emmanuel Macron after the two leaders held talks in Paris.

“Today, we have gone further than ever before to put an end to this disgusting trade in human life. Working together, the UK and France will ensure that nobody can exploit our systems with impunity.”

Mr Sunak, who became Britain’s Prime Minister in October, is hoping to capitalise on renewed goodwill with fellow former investment banker Emmanuel Macron to end years of arguing over issues ranging from migration to fishing.

The meeting in Paris is the first summit of Europe’s two main military nations – both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and nuclear powers – in five years.

Ties that have often been rocky since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016 have been fortified by the countries’ support for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion.

“The partnership the UK and France share runs deep,” Mr Sunak said earlier on Twitter. “From tackling illegal migration to driving growth in our economies to defending our common security, when we work together, we all benefit.”

The meeting also comes as relations between Britain and the European Union have also improved in the light of the Windsor Framework – a new agreement with the bloc aimed at fixing problems with Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Later in March, King Charles III will also travel to France on his first state visit as monarch.

Mr Sunak and Mr Macron struck up a personal rapport at the COP27 summit in Egypt in November during their first face-to-face meeting, two weeks after Mr Sunak became Prime Minister.

Their warm relationship was labelled “Le Bromance” in British newspapers.

Mr Sunak has sought a reset with France after relations soured under his predecessors, Mr Boris Johnson and Ms Liz Truss, and is looking to work with Paris on tackling the large numbers of migrants that arrive in southern England in small boats.

In November, Britain and France signed an agreement worth €72 million (S$103 million) to ramp up efforts to stop illegal migrants from making perilous journeys across the Channel.

The two countries have been criticised by non-governmental organisations for their handling of the issue.

“The relentless intimidation, violence and degrading treatment perpetrated in the name of ‘border enforcement’ by both countries has proven entirely ineffective at stopping people from arriving in northern France or attempting to cross the Channel to find refuge in the United Kingdom,” Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said in an open letter to the leaders on Thursday.

Britain on Tuesday set out details of a new law barring the entry of asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the Channel, a proposal some charities say could be impractical and criminalise the efforts of thousands of genuine refugees.

Asked about the British government’s announcement on small boats, French officials said it did not change the fact that since Brexit, there was no bilateral deal on how to readmit migrants in France.

“At this stage, we see no major impact for French coasts. It’s not as if we had a legal instrument since Brexit that helped us regulate the flow of migrants between the two coasts,” one official said.

France is keen to deepen defence ties, including through the joint training of Ukrainian soldiers, and also want to make their two competing future fighter jet programmes – FCAS and Tempest – compatible, Elysee advisers say. REUTERS

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