Rishi Sunak and a series of his ministers are heading to Paris for a summit at which he will push Emmanuel Macron to assist him over Channel migrant crossings – but with little apparent chance of securing an immediate deal on returning people.
The gathering in Paris, the first such UK-France summit in five years, is also based around wider bilateral issues such as defence and Ukraine. However, for Sunak’s domestic focus, it seems set to be dominated by the issue of small boats.
The prime minister will meet the French president for talks at the Élysée Palace, with a joint press conference afterwards.
Half a dozen cabinet ministers are also attending the summit, including Suella Braverman, the home secretary; James Cleverly, the foreign secretary; Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, and energy secretary Grant Shapps who will all meet their French counterparts.
While there will be a focus on rebuilding more cordial relations following tensions over Brexit and the more abrasive approach of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Sunak is under domestic pressure to secure a deal over returning migrants who arrive from France, and for beefed-up policing of the Channel coast.
The prime minister has invested a huge amount of political capital in the controversial new immigration bill that aims to stem the arrival of small boats by criminalising anyone who arrives unofficially, with the threat of rapid deportation and a permanent ban from settling in the UK.
While the aim is to deport some to third countries such as Rwanda, a more straightforward option would be to return some arrivals to France or other EU nations, as happened before Brexit under the Dublin agreement for dealing with asylum seekers.
While Sunak ideally wants a replacement returns agreement with France, UK officials believe Macron is not likely to agree, with the focus instead expected to be on working out a new EU-wide returns deal.
Sunak’s official spokesperson said the prime minister would raise the issue: “Certainly we are going in there with an ambition to go further on stopping the boats making these dangerous crossings.”
With almost 3,000 people having arrived in the UK unofficially by small boat so far this year, French police said they have stopped around the same number making the trip.
Sunak’s official spokesperson said: “These are important discussions that should deepen our work with our French counterparts on stopping the boats.
“We want a EU-UK returns agreement and will push that forward. But it is equally important that there is work on the ground right now to stop the crossings we are seeing even in these winter months.”
Labour, who have focused the bulk of their opposition to the bill on what they see as its ineffectiveness in tackling boat arrivals and the asylum backlog rather than concerns raised by refugee agencies and charities, have nonetheless challenged Sunak to reach a returns agreement in Paris.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said Sunak “will have failed if he comes back from the summit without a new returns agreement and new joint arrangements to prevent dangerous boat crossings”.
Officials in Paris and London have classed the meeting as the “beginning of the renewal of a beautiful relationship”.
As well as defence and Ukraine, other subjects set to be discussed are post-Brexit difficulties over school visits, and ways France can learn from London’s experience of hosting the Olympics ahead of the 2024 Paris Games.
Downing Street stressed that the gathering would not be “a summit on a single issue”, also raising energy security and the “challenge posed by China” as likely to be discussed.