New UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had his first official phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, just a few days after taking office.
Sunak said that links with France “span centuries” and noted the two countries cooperate closely on a range of issues from Ukraine to energy securiy.
However the main discussions were about migrants crossing the Channel, with the UK asking for France’s help.
The UK’s Conservative government has made repeated promises since Brexit about the need to reduce the flow of migrants from mainland Europe to Britain, often in very dangerous conditions, with hundreds of lives lost this year alone.
But the British have been unable to do much, if anything, about the number of people attempting the crossing.
“The Prime Minister stressed the importance for both countries of making the Channel route completely impassable for human traffickers. The leaders pledged to deepen their partnership to discourage the deadly Channel crossings that benefit organised criminals,” Downing Street said in a statement.
The French side stated Macron’s “availability” to “deepen the bilateral relationship between France and the UK, notably in the fields of defence, strategic affairs and energy”.
The British government is already helping French authorities financially to better monitor the French coast to prevent departures.
But according to The Times newspaper, Rishi Sunak wants to go further. He wants an agreement with quantified targets for intercepted boats, a minimum number of French agents assigned to monitor the beaches and British border guards to accompany them.
On the British side, he aims to set targets for 80% of asylum applications to be processed within six months, compared to an average of 480 days, while tightening up the conditions for granting asylum.
Record numbers of Channel crossings
More than 38,000 migrants have made the dangerous crossing of the English Channel on makeshift boats since the beginning of the year, more than in the whole of last year, which was already a record.
Another 308 arrived on Thursday.
According to the British authorities, up to 80% of these new migrants are now Albanians.
The British asylum system is overwhelmed by the influx, with more than 117,000 cases pending. The reception centre where migrants are supposed to be processed for 24 hours on arrival is overflowing with people who have been there for more than 30 days or sleeping on camping mats.
Successive Tory governments have considered everything, abandoning some illegal or unworkable ideas such as pushing boats out of British waters with artificial waves, locking migrants on cruise ships, or sending them to remote islands.
The latest plan, announced under Boris Johnson, is to send illegally-arrived asylum seekers to Rwanda, but this controversial plan has stalled, still pending judicial review.
Rishi Sunak, himself the grandson of Indian immigrants, has taken a tough stance on immigration, campaigning for refugee quotas to convince the right wing of his party. He appointed the ultraconservative Suella Braverman as Home Secretary.
In contrast to previous governments, which took an aggressive stance towards France with regards to migrant crossings, the new UK administration has already adopted a more conciliatory tone.
Immigration Secretary Robert Jenrick said this week that he wanted a more “constructive” relationship with Paris, in particular to take joint action with the Albanian authorities.
Confirming this change of tone, Rishi Sunak stressed during his call with Emmanuel Macron “the importance of the relationship between the UK and France as a neighbour and ally” and said he was “looking forward” to a bilateral summit next year, according to his spokesperson.