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Sunak Seals Migration Deal With Macron to Move Past Acrimony

Sunak Seals Migration Deal With Macron to Move Past Acrimony
Emmanuel Macron, France's president, left, and Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, ahead of their bilateral meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on Friday, March 10, 2023. Sunak's trip, the first such state visit in five years, comes days after he reached a deal to solve the dispute with the European Union over Northern Ireland's trading arrangements.

Rishi Sunak struck a multi-year deal with Emmanuel Macron to curb cross-Channel immigration in small boats, as the two former investment bankers sought to turn the page on years of Anglo-French acrimony. 

During a visit to the Elysee Palace in Paris, the British prime minister pledged at least €541 million ($575 million) over the next three years to help France prevent migrant boats from leaving French beaches bound for the UK. For the first time, Britain will help pay for a detention center in France.

“Criminal gangs should not get to decide who comes to our countries,” Sunak said during a joint press conference with Macron on Friday. “we’ve taken our cooperation to an unprecedented level to tackle this shared challenge.”

The agreement will help improve relations between the two neighbors that have been poisoned by Brexit and a surge in recent years of cross-channel immigration. It comes less than two weeks after the British premier struck a fresh deal with the European Union on Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements, in another sign of thawing tensions.

Both Sunak, whose parents are immigrants from east Africa of Indian origin, and Macron, have vowed to curb the numbers of people reaching their countries clandestinely. Sunak is especially under pressure to act after making stopping the small boats one of his five priorities in government. Earlier this week, he announced a new legislation he said will prevent migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

UK Unveils Plan to Detain and Deport Channel Migrants (2)

The pair appears to have moved away from previous blame games.

The new deal paves the way for greater intelligence sharing, the use of new technologies including drones and hundreds more police officers patrolling the coast — more than double current personnel levels, according to a UK government statement. Permanent UK liaison officers will also be posted to a new coordination center.

“The level of ambition of this new plan is exactly what we need,” Macron said.

Tensions

It builds on a previous agreement that the two countries renewed in November, just weeks after Sunak took office. Under that, the UK agreed to pay €72 million in 2022 and 2023 for France to beef up controls on French beaches from where migrants are departing. The two had already agreed to share more intelligence to track smugglers, and use detection drone and dogs.

UK Arrivals by Small Boats Have Surged | Year-to-date arrivals

The agreement was part of the 2018 Sandhurst treaty, whereby the two powers agreed to meet annually to share their views to secure borders and broker how much the UK should contribute each year. A French official in Macron’s office said earlier this week that a multi-year framework would be more efficient, allowing France to plan in advance its ground forces.

Tensions over migrants between London and Paris — which reached a high when French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in 2021 that Britain’s labor policy was too attractive for illegal workers — won’t vanish overnight however. The next bone of contention could concern a so-called returns agreement, with the UK government aiming to send migrants back to France and elsewhere.

While the Elysee official questioned the proposal’s compliance with international law, Sunak told reporters on the way to Paris on Friday that he was hoping to have a constructive discussion with the EU to send migrants arriving in the UK back to the bloc.

‘Mon Ami’

On Friday, Sunak and Macron also pledged closer cooperation when it comes to defense and nuclear energy.

The warmer relations are in marked contrast to Sunak’s immediate two predecessors. During her campaign for the leadership over the summer, Liz Truss said the jury was still out on whether or not Macron was a friend or a foe, while Boris Johnson before her once reportedly called the French “turds.”

“This is very clearly a moment of reunion, reconnection and a new start,” Macron said. “It marks a shared desire to speak to each other, coordinate better, build new prospects together in this context.”

In an interview published Friday by the French newspaper Le Figaro, Sunak called Macron a “great friend” and said the two sometimes texts about soccer. When they met earlier Friday, they exchanged signed rugby shirts, and in the press conference, Sunak concluded his opening remarks by saying “merci mon ami” — French for “thank you, my friend,” before the two men shook hands and embraced.

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