France has reacted with fury after Boris Johnson publicly called on Paris to take back migrants who succeed in making the perilous Channel crossing to Britain.
A French government spokesman accused the Prime Minister of “double-speak” as the fallout from the sinking of a migrant boat on Wednesday with the loss of 27 lives erupted into a full-scale diplomatic row.
Earlier the French Interior Ministry announced it was withdrawing an invitation to Home Secretary Priti Patel to attend a meeting in Calais on Sunday of ministers from key European countries to discuss the crisis.
The French were enraged by Mr Johnson releasing a letter he sent to President Emmanuel Macron setting out his proposals to tackle the issue.
They included joint UK-French patrols by border officials along French beaches to stop boats leaving – a move which Mr Johnson said could begin as early as next week but which Paris has long resisted.
He also called for talks to begin on a bilateral returns agreement, saying it could have “an immediate and significant impact” on the flow of people attempting the crossing.
However, the proposal was dismissed by French government spokesman Gabriel Attal, who said it was “clearly not what we need to solve this problem”.
He said the Prime Minister’s letter “doesn’t correspond at all” with discussions Mr Johnson and Mr Macron had when they spoke on Wednesday.
“We are sick of double-speak,” he said.
Mr Macron said Mr Johnson’s decision to post his letter on his Twitter feed suggested he was “not serious”.
“We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public. We are not whistleblowers,” he told a news conference.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted Mr Johnson’s proposals were made in “good faith”, and appealed to the French to reconsider their decision to withdraw the invitation to Ms Patel.
“I think it is really important that we work hand-in-glove with the French. I don’t think there is anything inflammatory to ask for close co-operation with our nearest neighbours,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Downing Street sought to play down the row insisting Mr Johnson’s letter had been written in a “spirit of partnership and co-operation”.
A No 10 spokesman said the proposals he had put forward were all measures which the Government had raised before.
“This is about deepening our existing co-operation and the work that is already being done between our two countries,” the spokesman said.
“We want to work extremely closely with the French on this shared problem and we want to take work forward in that vein.”
In a statement reported on French media, the Interior Ministry said the meeting on Sunday would go ahead with interior minister Gerald Darmanin and his counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and representatives of the European Commission.
Although the meeting with Ms Patel has been cancelled, the No 10 spokesman said Home Office officials had travelled to France for talks on Friday with French counterparts as planned.
In his letter, the Prime Minister argued a bilateral returns agreement would be in France’s interest by breaking the business model of criminal gangs running the people-smuggling trade from Normandy.
Under Mr Johnson’s proposals:
– Joint patrols would prevent more boats from leaving French beaches.
– Advanced technology such as sensors and radar would be deployed to track migrants and people-trafficking gangs.
– There would be joint or reciprocal maritime patrols in each other’s territorial waters and airborne surveillance by manned flights and drones.
– The work of the Joint Intelligence Cell would be improved with better real-time intelligence sharing to deliver more arrests and prosecutions on both sides of the Channel.
– There would be immediate work on a bilateral returns agreement with France, to allow migrants to be sent back across the Channel, alongside talks to establish a UK-EU returns agreement.
Writing on Twitter, he added: “If those who reach this country were swiftly returned, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced.
“This would be the single biggest step we could take together to reduce the draw to Northern France and break the business model of criminal gangs.
“I am confident that by taking these steps and building on our existing cooperation we can address illegal migration and prevent more families from experiencing the devastating loss we saw yesterday.”