UK, France mend ties, leaders agree to tackle Channel boats

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shares hands with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Friday, March 10, 2023 at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed Friday to strengthen the military ties between their countries and step up efforts to prevent migrants from crossing the English Channel, at a summit that signaled a thaw in relations after years of Brexit-induced chill.

Sunak traveled to Paris as part of efforts to mend relations with France and other European Union members following the tensions created by the U.K.’s departure from the EU. At a cordial joint news conference, Sunak said his meeting with Macron, the first French-British summit since 2018, marked “a new beginning, an entente renewed.”

It was also a chance to signal to Sunak’s Conservative Party and British voters that the government is making progress on its promise to stop migrants reaching the U.K. in small boats.

Britain agreed to pay France more than 500 million euros over the next three years for measures including a detention center for migrants in northern France, a joint command center and more patrols of the French coastline using drones and an additional 500 French police officers.

It’s the latest and biggest measure in years of efforts by the two countries to stop thousands of migrants gathering in northern France and then trying to reach the U.K.

The U.K. has struck a series of deals with France over the years to increase patrols of beaches and share intelligence in an attempt to disrupt smuggling gangs — all of which have had only a limited impact.

Macron and Sunak said the enforcement had worked, leading to more than 50 smuggling networks being broken up, 500 arrests and 1,300 boats prevented from launching.

Still, more than 45,000 people arrived in Britain by boat in 2022, up from 28,000 in 2021 according to an official U.K. count.

The EU’s border agency, Frontex, said 5,600 Channel crossings by asylum-seekers and migrants during the first two months of the year, an 82% increase from the same period in 2022. It said the most common countries of origin were Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.

“There is no one solution to solving this very complicated problem, and nor will it be solved overnight,” Sunak acknowledged.

The U.K. announced contentious plans this week to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat, either to their homeland or “a safe third country.”

The move has horrified refugee and human rights groups and faces huge legal and logistical challenges — not least because almost no countries have agreed to accept any deportees.

Macron rejected any suggestion France might strike such an agreement with Britain, saying the U.K. would have to deal with the EU as a whole.

Humanitarian groups criticized the U.K.-France agreement. Christina Marriott, spokesperson for the British Red Cross, said “the focus on more detention in today’s agreement with France is disappointing.”

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International’s refugee and migrant rights director, said that “fortress Britain policies won’t work” to solve migration issues.

In recent years, relations between the U.K. and France chilled amid post-Brexit wrangling over fishing rights and other issues, and hit rock-bottom under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took delight in needling the French. His successor, Liz Truss, ruffled French feathers last year when she said the “jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or a foe.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought Britain and its European neighbors closer together in support of Kyiv, and the mood improved after pragmatic, technocratic Sunak took office in October after Truss’ brief and economically destabilizing term.

Sunak’s visit also comes two weeks before King Charles III travels to France and then Germany for his first state visits since becoming monarch.

France and the U.K. agreed Friday to strengthen military cooperation, including on supplying weapons to Kyiv and training Ukrainian Marines,

“On the short term, our goal is to help Ukraine conduct the counteroffensive it wishes to do. Today’s priority is military,” Macron said. In the longer term, he said efforts should head towards “building a lasting peace, at the moment and in conditions that Ukraine will choose.”

The leaders also pledged to work for a permanent European maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific, notably by coordinating deployment to the region of France’s Charles de Gaulle and the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales aircraft carriers.

The improved relationship comes after the U.K. and the EU announced a deal to resolve the dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, which had soured Britain’s relationship with the bloc.

Macron and Sunak met for more than an hour in private, and showed respect and courtesy towards each other in public.

Macron said Brexit had had “consequences” and “probably some of those consequences were underestimated, but we have to fix them.”

Sunak told Macron he felt “very fortunate to be serving alongside you, and incredibly excited about the future we can build together,” before concluding in French: “Merci mon ami” (“thank you my friend”).