(CN) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was in Paris on Friday meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, in the first bilateral summit between the neighboring countries in five years.
Sunak hailed the talks as “a new beginning” in a press conference with Macron, alluding to the deterioration of relations between the nations in recent years, over issues such as Brexit and migration.
In the spirit of increased cooperation, the pair announced the establishment of a new British-funded detention center in northern France, part of an attempt to stop the rapidly rising number of refugees making dangerous journeys from the French coast to England in small boats.
The new facility is the latest in a long time of thus far unsuccessful Anglo-French initiatives to stop the perilous journeys. It was hailed by Sunak, who said “we don’t need to manage this problem, we need to break it. Working together, the U.K. and France will ensure that nobody can exploit our systems with impunity.”
The meeting comes after the British government this week proposed a range of controversial new punitive measures for those who have made the risky crossing into England. These include a legal duty to detain and deport anyone found to have crossed the channel, and to deny the right to bail or judicial review for the first 28 days of detention.
The measures have provoked a strong backlash in the United Kingdom after interior minister Suella Braverman admitted that there is a “more than 50% chance” that they break international law. The United Nations has strongly criticized the proposals, stating that they “amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be,” and concluding that they are “a clear breach of the refugee convention.”
Sunak has sought to make the boat crossings a major political issue in recent months. His ruling Conservative Party, which continues to struggle in polling after years of political instability in Britain, perceives the issue as a crucial vote winner.
But while the issue of "small boats" has recently become a key plank of Sunak’s election strategy, the problem is not new. Refugees have been entering the U.K. on flimsy inflatable dinghies since 2018, when checks on more traditional modes of entry such as trains, buses and ferries intensified.
Entering in this way is highly dangerous, with weather conditions and heavy marine traffic posing a severe risk to life on the often heavily overcrowded vessels. In November 2021, 27 asylum seekers drowned in the freezing sea waters after their dinghy sunk, highlighting the risks involved in the crossing. Numbers of people making the sea crossings have shot up rapidly from an estimated 8,500 in 2020 to almost 40,000 last year.
The British government has long claimed that it does not have the capacity to host this volume of refugees, and that anybody entering in this way should not be given residence in the country. Instead the government has proposed a divisive scheme in which asylum seekers would be deported to Rwanda for processing, and given residency in the small African republic, rather than Britain, if their claim is successful. The policy has faced countless legal challenges, and nobody has been deported under the new regime yet.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Braverman argued that the boat crossings would not stop “until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally you will be detained and swiftly removed.”
However, the crossings can in part be attributed to a lack of legal routes for asylum seekers to enter the U.K., along with an internationally unusual policy requiring refugees to be on British soil before they can apply for asylum. French offers to permit British processing on French soil, thus eliminating the need for boat crossings, have been rejected by the British government.
Tensions between Britain and France, already strained by the Brexit vote in 2016, rose dramatically under the premiership of Boris Johnson, who frequently sought to blame the French authorities for failures on migration and asylum. Following the 2021 deadly capsizing, Johnson wrote an open letter to Macron calling on France to take more action, infuriating Macron, who told the British government to “get serious.” The French president was widely reported to have privately branded Johnson as “a clown in charge of a circus.”
Relations with Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, were perhaps even worse, after Truss said during her leadership campaign that she wasn’t sure if Macron was a “friend or foe.” Macron publicly rebuked Truss, stating that Britain would remain an ally “despite its leaders” and their “mistakes.”
While political tension between Britain and France is not unusual, with the old neighbors long engaged in friendly rivalry, the lack of cooperation in recent years was regarded by both sides as a low point in the modern era.
In stark contrast, however, many have remarked on the notable similarities between Marcon and Sunak. Both leaders are young, wealthy and clean-cut former investment bankers on the center-right of the political spectrum, and both are currently facing down widespread strikes in their respective countries.
Despite being a Brexit-backer, Sunak has even started to take on a far more ameliorative approach towards the European Union, much in the style of the Europhile Macron. The PM’s recent deal with the EU over Northern Ireland’s trade arrangements, struck in a notably more positive tone last week, has been widely hailed as a major political success. Sunak appears to have outmaneuvered both his party’s Euroskeptic right-wing and Northern Ireland’s hardline Democratic Unionist Party to break the long-running stalemate over customs arrangements and secure widespread parliamentary approval.
Riding high off the success of the deal, which his three prime ministerial predecessors all failed to pull off, Sunak is looking to cement his status as a consensus builder and problem solver. But the Sunak administration's hardline domestic approach to asylum is unlikely to win him many friends in Brussels. Instead praise has come from key figures in the European far-right, including France’s Eric Zemmour and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.
For now the entente cordial seems to be strengthened, with Macron telling Sunak he was “very fortunate to be serving alongside you.” But it remains to be seen whether doubling-down on punitive measures and detention capacity, which have thus far failed to stop boat crossings, will succeed this time around.
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