Macron turns ire on Johnson over handling of Channel migrant crisis

Emmanuel Macron has strongly criticised Boris Johnson after the UK prime minister made demands over the cross-Channel migrant crisis in a public letter, with the French president saying Paris was cutting Britain out of an international meeting on the situation because it was not acting “seriously” to try to find a solution.

“You don’t communicate from one leader to another on these matters through a tweet and a letter which you make public. We’re not whistleblowers,” Macron said on Friday, two days after the disaster in which 27 people died trying to reach England from France in a small boat.

“Our ministers are going to work seriously to deal with this serious matter with serious people,” Macron told a news conference in Rome, where he was signing a Franco-Italian friendship treaty.

Macron’s anger is the latest sign that his relations with Johnson are again deteriorating to a post-Brexit low despite indications before the tragedy that the two governments were improving their co-operation in attempting to stop people leaving the French coast.

Johnson’s letter called for French and British reciprocal maritime patrols in each other’s territorial waters and for the thousands of migrants who reach English shores to be returned to France.

“If those who reach this country were swiftly returned, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced,” Johnson wrote on Thursday night.

The French objected both to the content of the letter, which challenged French sovereignty and essentially laid the blame for the crisis at France’s door, and to the way it was immediately made public.

The UK’s right-leaning Daily Express tabloid promptly carried a splash headline on its front page on Friday that read: “UK troops to patrol French beaches.”

Macron confirmed that France had withdrawn an invitation to UK home secretary Priti Patel to join European ministers for a meeting in Calais on Sunday to discuss the crisis. “Then we’ll see with Britain how we can act efficiently if they decide to be serious,” he said.

However, Downing Street on Friday said it hoped the French side would reconsider.

French officials have complained that the British government is blaming Macron for problems associated with Brexit and the migrant crisis for domestic political reasons. UK officials in turn say Macron is being difficult because he will be campaigning for re-election in April and is being criticised by his French nationalist opponents.

After the tragedy on Wednesday, the Elysée Palace said Macron had told Johnson that the UK and France shared responsibility for the migrant issue and that “he expected the British to co-operate fully and to abstain from exploiting a tragedy for political ends”. 

Johnson’s suggestion that the two countries sign a bilateral agreement to return asylum seekers arriving in the UK to France — which Johnson said in a tweet on Thursday evening was the “biggest single step” the two countries could take to deter clandestine crossings — hit on a highly sensitive topic for the French side.

France has persistently rejected UK efforts to negotiate bilateral return agreements, insisting that the process needs to be managed via a deal between the UK and the EU. Gérald Darmanin, French interior minister, in September described as “blackmail” a series of proposals by Patel with some similarities to those set out in Thursday’s letter.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s former Brexit negotiator and a French presidential candidate, on Friday condemned Johnson’s approach as “unacceptable” and “yet another provocation”, saying on LCI television that the UK prime minister was being “confrontational” on all topics with the EU.

A deal is needed to address the issues created by the UK’s withdrawal last December from the Dublin Conventions, an agreement among European states that allows the return of asylum seekers to safe countries through which they have passed on the way to claiming asylum elsewhere. The conventions also provide for reunions of families stranded in separate countries.

Downing Street on Friday insisted Johnson had no regrets either over sending the letter or posting it on Twitter. The prime minister’s official spokesman said both Johnson and Macron had a “shared recognition” of the situation’s urgency.

“You’ll see from the tone of the letter this is about deepening our existing co-operation and building on work that has already been done between our two countries which the PM in the letter paid tribute to,” the spokesman said.

“We want to work closely with the French and international partners on what is a shared issue,” the spokesman added.


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