France’s interior minister has cancelled his weekend talks with Priti Patel in protest at Boris Johnson’s letter calling on the French to take back Channel migrants.
Gerald Darmanin said he was “disappointed” by the letter from the Prime Minister to President Emmanuel Macron which also proposed joint Anglo-French air, land and sea patrols after the deaths of 27 migrants when their boat capsized off Calais on Wednesday.
The Home Secretary had been due to meet Mr Darmanin on Sunday with her counterparts from other EU countries hit by the migrant crisis including Belgium and the Netherlands to discuss strategies to prevent further tragedies.
However, in a message to Ms Patel, Mr Darmanin told her the letter from Johnson suggesting France takes back migrants who cross the Channel was a “disappointment.”
He added: “Making it public made it even worse. I therefore need to cancel our meeting in Calais on Sunday.”
His move represents a major blow to attempts to build closer cooperation over the Channel migrant crisis amid continuing Anglo-French tensions over Brexit, fishing rights and the recent Australia-UK-US nuclear submarine pact.
Emmanuel Macron, the French President, urged Mr Johnson on a call on Wednesday night “to refrain from exploiting a tragic situation for political ends”, according to an Élysée Palace readout.
Hours earlier Mr Johnson had called on France to “step up” and do more with the UK to stop small boats, saying “we’ve had difficulties persuading some of our partners, particularly the French, to do things in a way that we think the situation deserves”.
In his letter made public on Thursday night, Mr Johnson urged President Macron to negotiate a “returns agreement” that would allow the UK to send migrants back to France, with London taking in more child migrants with British family links in return.
Downing Street sees the pact as the best long-term solution to the escalating problem of boat crossings, as it would undercut smugglers promising a route into the UK.
A senior Government source said: “A returns agreement would be the single biggest deterrent of these crimes. If migrants that cross the Channel illegally are sent back to France this totally busts the smuggling gangs.”
The EU rejected a returns agreement as part of the Brexit talks and the UK has so far struggled to secure a new deal either with the EU or bilateral arrangements with France or any other European nation apart from Albania.
In his letter, Mr Johnson also formally offered hundreds of British personnel to stop desperate migrants from taking to the water. He suggested there could be British boots on France’s northern shore as early as Monday in an attempt to prevent a repeat of Wednesday’s tragedy.
France has so far fiercely resisted any move to allow British law enforcement officers to operate on its soil, claiming it would violate French sovereignty
In his letter, the Prime Minister also offered to pay for private security personnel to conduct the joint patrols if Border Force staff are deemed unacceptable. He proposed joint maritime patrols, which could see Border Force cutters operating in French waters.
He also proposed greater intelligence sharing and the use of more advanced technology, including ground sensors and radar to detect migrants before they leave France.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said the letter’s proposals had been put forward “in good faith” and that there was “nothing inflammatory to ask for closer cooperationn with our nearest neighbour.” He added: “I hope they will reconsider meeting up to discuss them.
“It is incumbent on the UK and France to do whatever is require to resolve this human tragedy that involves these people smugglers.”