- UK PM aims for reset after years of post-Brexit disputes
- Britain wants further help to tackle small boat migrants
- Ukraine, defence projects and energy also on the agenda
By Michel Rose and Alistair Smout
PARIS/LONDON, March 10 (Reuters) – The leaders of France and Britain met on Friday to iron out differences over migration and deepen military ties after years of bickering over Brexit.
Rishi Sunak, who became Britain’s prime minister in October, is hoping to capitalise on renewed goodwill with Emmanuel Macron and, as he arrived in the Paris, said he wanted to start talks with the European Union on a deal that would eventually allow it to return migrants arriving on British shores.
The meeting 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.
The two former investment bankers, accompanied by seven ministers on each side, also met business leaders from both countries to deepen their economic relationship.
Their talks will also centre on Indo-Pacific cooperation, China and nuclear energy.
Ties have often been rocky since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, but have been fortified by the countries’ support for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion.
Contrary to recent mudslinging, Macron welcomed Sunak at the Elysee palace and the two greeted each other with smiles and mutual back-slapping.
“The partnership the UK and France share runs deep,” Sunak said on Twitter. “From tackling illegal migration to driving growth in our economies to defending our common security, when we work together we all benefit. It’s in that spirit I’m looking forward to meeting @EmmanuelMacron today.”
A French presidential adviser said the summit’s priority was for the two NATO allies to reconnect.
The meeting comes as relations between Britain and the EU have also improved in light of the Windsor Framework – a new agreement with the bloc aimed at fixing problems with Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Later this month, King Charles will also travel to France on his first state visit as monarch.
Sunak and Macron struck up a personal rapport at the COP27 summit in Egypt in November during their first face-to-face meeting, two weeks after Sunak became prime minister, with their warm relationship labelled “Le Bromance” in British newspapers.
Sunak has sought a reset with France after relations soured under his predecessors Boris Johnson and 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 euros ($74 million) to ramp up efforts to stop illegal migrants from making perilous journeys across the Channel.
Sunak told reporters his immediate priority was working to strengthen cooperation to stop the crossings.
“Over time, having those conversations with the EU is definitely a part of it,” Sunak said when asked what it would take to secure a so-called returns agreement.
EXTRA MIGRATION FUNDING
Sunak said he was open to providing more funding to France to help stop boats from leaving French shores. The Times newspaper said he could announce payments in excess of 200 million pounds (226.46 million euros) over three years, the report said, citing unnamed sources.
The two countries have been criticised by non-governmental organisations for their handling of the issue.
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 also 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.
(1 euro = 0.8832 pounds)