France on Friday (26 November) scrapped planned talks with the UK about migrant crossings after an “unacceptable” letter from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pushing relations to new lows after 27 people died in the Channel.
The anger in Paris was sparked by Johnson’s decision to send a letter to Macron on Thursday evening proposing ways to stop migrants crossing from France to Britain, then publishing it in full on his Twitter account.
“I am surprised by methods when they are not serious. One leader does not communicate with another on these questions on Twitter, by public letter… No, No,” Macron told a press conference in Rome.
Relations between the two neighbours were already seen as their most tense in decades following a series of disputes over Brexit, but the personal criticism of Johnson represents a further turn for the worse.
Analysts say the lack of trust and goodwill will make it more difficult to mount a coordinated response to the growing numbers of people seeking to cross the narrow but treacherous waterway separating the countries.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin cancelled planned talks with his British counterpart Priti Patel, informing her that she was no longer invited to talks at the weekend with other European ministers.
In a message seen by AFP, Darmanin told Patel the letter was a “disappointment” and “making it public made it even worse. I therefore need to cancel our meeting in Calais on Sunday.”
“We consider the British Prime Minister’s public letter to be unacceptable and contrary to the discussions we had with our counterparts,” added a French source close to Darmanin told AFP, asking not to be named.
Johnson wrote that he had “long been profoundly concerned” about a tragedy in the Channel and “such a catastrophe has now happened” following an accident on Wednesday that saw 27 people drown when their inflatable boat sank.
As well as reiterating a request to send British security forces to France for joint patrols — a sensitive issue for Macron — he also asked France to immediately start taking back all migrants who land in England.
Speaking to the BFM TV channel, government spokesman Gabriel Attal called the letter “threadbare in its substance and completely inappropriate in its form”. The idea of sending back migrants to France “is obviously not what we need to resolve this problem”, he added.
“You could ask now whether Boris Johnson regrets leaving Europe because as soon as there’s a problem he considers it Europe’s job to solve it,” he said, targeting Johnson’s role as a key architect of Brexit.
Meeting without UK
Macron said Sunday’s meeting in the port of Calais with German, Dutch and Belgian interior ministers, as well as the European Commission, would go ahead without the UK.
London asked Paris to reconsider the snub. “It’s in our interests. It’s in their interests,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC.
Seventeen men, seven women and three minors died on Wednesday when their inflatable lost air and took on water off Calais. A manslaughter probe has
been opened. Five suspected traffickers accused of being directly linked to the doomedcrossing have been arrested.
Darmanin said only two survivors, an Iraqi and Somali, had been found and they were recovering from extreme hypothermia and would eventually be questioned.
The new row has added to a litany of post-Brexit problems between Britain and France, with French fishermen on Friday due to stage a blockade of Channel ferry ports and stop freight entering the Channel Tunnel in protest over fishing licences.
Under a deal agreed by Britain and the EU late last year, European fishing vessels can continue to ply UK waters if they can prove they operated there in the past.
But Paris says dozens of French boats have had their applications to fish the UK’s rich waters rejected, an assessment London strongly contests.
Dozens of French fishing boats will block ferries from Britain at three ports — Saint-Malo, Ouistreham and Calais — from midday (1100 GMT).
In the afternoon, the fishermen will attempt to block the access of goods trucks to the freight terminal of the Channel Tunnel from 2:00 to 4:00 pm (1300 GMT to 1500 GMT).
“We don’t want handouts, we just want our licences back. The UK must abide
by the post-Brexit deal. Too many fishermen are still in the dark,” said French national fisheries committee (CNPMEM) chairman Gerard Romiti, describing the action as a “warning shot”.