Bitterness between France and UK over channel crossings is mounting

PARIS – French officials lashed out at Britain on Friday after a letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson advising France to take back migrants reaching the British coast, escalating a diplomatic spat just days after 27 people were killed crossing the bridge. English Channel.

The French bluntly rejected Mr Johnson’s statement, calling it unacceptable, and invited British Home Secretary Priti Patel to a crucial meeting on the migrant crisis on Sunday.

The dispute, in the immediate aftermath of one of the deadliest disasters ever to hit the English Channel, underlined the diplomatic hurdles the two countries face in tackling the issue as ongoing tensions over Brexit and disagreements over issues such as trade and fishing rights keep flowing in their heads. relation.

In a letter sent to France’s President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday evening, Mr Johnson wrote that France and Britain should “conclude a bilateral readmission agreement to allow all illegal migrants crossing the Channel to be returned,” suggesting that if France send migrants back, it would be a big step to solve the problem.

The letter provoked a strong reaction from Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for the French government, who said the letter was “both bad in content and completely inappropriate in its form”.

“Enough with the double language, enough with the constant externalization of problems,” Mr Attal, visibly annoyed, told BFMTV Friday morning. “You wonder if Boris Johnson doesn’t regret leaving Europe because every time he has a problem he thinks Europe has to solve it.”

Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, was quick to announce that Ms Patel was no longer invited to an emergency meeting France will hold in Calais on Sunday with ministers in charge of immigration from neighboring countries such as Belgium and Germany.

Mr Macron said on Friday that the crisis required “serious” cooperation, but that Mr Johnson’s letter was not a serious attempt.

“You do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues through tweets and letters that you make public, we are not whistleblowers, come on,” Macron said at a press conference in Rome, where he was on an official visit.

On Wednesday, about 30 migrants, crammed onto a flimsy inflatable vessel, were shipwrecked in the icy waters of the Channel, most of them – men, women and children – drowning. French prosecutors have opened an investigation to determine the exact circumstances of the disaster, and the identities and nationalities of most of the victims have not been confirmed.

The number of migrants taking to the sea has soared in recent months as France has cracked down on other routes to England, most notably by ferry or by truck and train through the Channel tunnel. French officials say there have been 47,000 attempts to cross the Channel so far this year and 7,800 migrants rescued from shipwrecks.

On Twitter wherever he is the full letter published to Mr Macron, Mr Johnson wrote that “an agreement with France to take back migrants crossing the Channel via this dangerous route would have an immediate and significant impact.”

“If those who reach this country were quickly turned back, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced,” Mr Johnson said. He called it “the biggest step” the two countries can take to tackle the problem.

In his letter, Mr Johnson noted that countries such as Russia and Belarus already have readmission agreements with the European Union and that any bilateral agreement between France and Britain would be temporary, pending a broader agreement between the EU and Britain. Britain.

He also outlined other proposals, including better intelligence sharing, joint police patrols on France’s coasts — which France has already rejected — and reciprocal maritime patrols in each country’s territorial waters.

But French officials reacted furiously to the suggestion that France should take back migrants Friday morning, calling the idea a non-starter and accusing Mr Johnson of using the migration crisis for domestic political ends.

Mr Darmanin said in a letter to Ms Patel and which was seen by the Agence-France Presse that he was “disappointed” by the demands in Mr Johnson’s letter and he thought it was “even worse” that he had made them. public.

Attal, the French government’s spokesman, told BFMTV that the publicly shared letter “did not match at all with Boris Johnson’s telephone conversations with the president on Wednesday evening.”

Mr Attal added that the suggestion that France should take back migrants reaching British shores “is clearly not what we need to solve the problem.” Instead, he said, Britain should send its own immigration officers to France, where they would examine applications from asylum seekers trying to reach British shores.

Grant Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, defended Mr Johnson’s letter, tell the BBC that “friends and neighbors” should work together and that he hoped France would reconsider inviting Mrs. Patel.

“It’s in our interest,” he said. “It is in their interest. It’s certainly in the interest of people being smuggled into the UK with these tragic scenes we’re seeing.”

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