Rishi Sunak pushed for a deal on Friday to counter small boat crossings of the English Channel by migrants in his first call with Emmanuel Macron, president of France.
The new UK prime minister adopted a conciliatory tone, describing France as “our neighbour and ally” in contrast to his predecessor Liz Truss who at one point during her successful bid for the leadership of the Conservative party declined to answer whether Macron was a “friend or foe”.
Franco-British relations have been plagued by tensions since Brexit with the two neighbours clashing over a range of issues from fishing licences to border checks.
But small boat crossings to England have been a particularly thorny issue, with the British side criticising the French for not doing more to prevent them. More than 30,000 people have made the crossing so far this year, surpassing the record for the whole of last year.
Some diplomats and officials in France have voiced hopes that Sunak’s arrival in 10 Downing Street may lead to improvements in the bilateral relationship. One senior Whitehall official expressed similar hopes, adding: “The new prime minister might finally give us a chance to get things on a better footing.”
Downing Street’s readout of the call said Sunak had “stressed the importance for both nations to make the Channel route completely unviable for people traffickers” in his call with Macron, adding: “The leaders committed to deepening our partnership to deter deadly journeys across the Channel that benefit organised criminals.”
The two countries have an annual security pact that governs the border with talks under way over its renewal. Under the 2021 agreement, the UK sent about €60mn to France in exchange for specific policing and control measures.
The Élysée, however, did not reference discussions on migration in its own briefing on the call between the two leaders. Talks over the security pact were “advancing well” in recent weeks, but no agreement had been yet reached, said one French official.
Elysée added that Macron told Sunak he was willing to “work closely with the prime minister to deepen the bilateral relationship between France and the United Kingdom, particularly in the areas of defence, strategic affairs and energy”. The Elysée also said there were plans to organise a Franco-British summit next year.
Meanwhile, one senior Whitehall official confirmed reports that home secretary Suella Braverman, who was forced to quit the Truss administration last week, fell out with the former prime minister over proposals for a new ‘growth visa’ that would have significantly reshaped the UK’s immigration system and boosted growth forecasts.
The proposals, first reported in The Sun, would have eased entry for IT professionals and scientists in an effort to kick start economic growth. Although the then prime minister was in favour of the plans, Braverman argued it would lead to soaring migration and break a manifesto commitment.
Downing Street declined to comment on speculation that the dispute over the visa proposal was behind Braverman’s departure — a move that plunged the former prime minister’s government into complete disarray.
At the time, Braverman’s exit was blamed on a security breach amid allegations she had shared confidential information with a Tory backbench MP. But one senior government insider confirmed her resignation was related to a draft policy. The Home Office declined to comment.
Number 10 insisted on Friday that Sunak maintained full confidence in Braverman, after he controversially reappointed her home secretary in his cabinet just days after she quit.
In an interview with broadcasters, Sunak said that he did not regret reinstating Braverman: “No, as I have said, she’s accepted her mistake and learned from it, and I’m confident of that”.
Asked whether he was warned by officials not to reappoint her, Sunak replied: “The home secretary has acknowledged the mistake, she’s recognised she made a mistake, she’s taken accountability for that and that’s the right thing.