Migration row intensifies between U.K. and France after English Channel deaths

CALAIS, France — A European migration dispute intensified Friday, as France accused Britain of lacking seriousness and scrapped a high-level meeting in the aftermath of a tragedy in the English Channel that left at least 27 migrants dead Wednesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron reacted angrily to a letter from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — which Johnson also posted in full on social media on Thursday night — that called for joint border patrols, as well as for France to take back migrants who succeed in the dangerous crossing of the channel.

These ideas have been proposed by Britain before — and rejected by France.

“We do not communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and letters that we make public,” Macron said at a news conference Friday.

“The ministers will work seriously on serious questions with serious people,” Macron added. “We will see with the British how to work effectively when they decide to be serious.”

Earlier Friday, France announced that Britain’s interior minister, Home Secretary Priti Patel, was no longer invited to weekend talks.

The interior ministers of France, Britain and several other European countries were to meet in Calais on Sunday to discuss joint efforts to combat people-smuggling in the region, after France called for more support from its neighbors. The French see the crisis as a shared European problem, with some of the migrants entering France from neighboring countries.

In the letter that caused offense in France, Johnson renewed calls for “joint patrols” by British and French security forces, or private contractors, along the coast of France — something that raises concern in Paris about sovereignty.

He also demanded a pact that would allow migrants to be sent back to France. Because Britain left the European Union, there is no established mechanism for transferring people back to mainland Europe.

More than 25,000 people have crossed the channel this year, many of them from the Middle East or Africa. Some are fleeing conflict or persecution. Some are seeking to reunite with family. Others are desperate to find work and expect more opportunities in Britain than on the continent.

People can apply for asylum in Britain only if they are physically there — leaving many to feel compelled to take deadly risks in rickety boats with traffickers.

Johnson said in the letter that he welcomed the invitation for the British home secretary to meet in Calais with her counterparts from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and that he would be willing to “upgrade this meeting to a Leaders’ Level Summit.”

Confirming that France had canceled British participation, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal on Friday morning called the letter “bereft of substance” and “totally inappropriate in terms of form.”

He said the letter did not reflect what Macron and Johnson discussed when they spoke on the phone Wednesday night, shortly after the incident in the English Channel.

“We are sick of double speak,” Attal said.

Nicholas Dungan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Johnson’s letter was viewed in France as “one more act of bad faith” from “someone they increasingly don’t trust.”

“Johnson posted a private letter — it’s ‘Dear Emmanuel,’ not a policy statement, not something cleared by the French, it wasn’t a readout,” Dungan said. “It was a unilateral ‘This is what I want’ statement, and even if it’s couched in conciliatory terms, it wasn’t expected.”

Dungan added: “The strong view in France is that Boris Johnson is someone who will say anything, do anything, and given the lack of trust, at very first sign he’s misbehaving again, they will come down hard.”

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC on Friday that Johnson’s proposal was made “in good faith” and that he hoped France would reconsider retracting the invitation.

After the Wednesday call between Macron and Johnson, Downing Street said the leaders had agreed to step up “joint efforts.” But the French readout spoke only of “shared responsibility” and said Macron had urged Johnson to “refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political purposes.”

They’ve also been engaged in a fight over post-Brexit fishing rights. On Friday, French fishermen temporarily disrupted Britain-bound shipping traffic at the ports of Calais and Ouistreham, and blockaded the Channel Tunnel’s freight traffic access, to add pressure on the British government.

On migration, Britain and France have said they share the same goal — curbing illegal migration and human smuggling in the English Channel — but their ideas on how to achieve that aim differ greatly.

France said it will expand sea monitoring in the region after Wednesday’s incident, which is known to have cost the lives of 17 men, seven women and three presumed minors. But to combat human smuggling, French officials say, other nations need to step up their support.

Charities and aid agencies on both sides of the channel have long called on the British government to open safe routes for asylum seekers.

The French government additionally accuses Britain of failing to act against traffickers, as well as businesses that employ undocumented migrants.

In a radio interview Thursday, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin also named Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as countries linked to trafficking networks. He added that one of the five people suspected of being involved in Wednesday’s crossing attempt had bought boats in Germany. The five were among more than 1,500 smugglers the French government says it has caught in the region since the beginning of the year.

Adam reported from London.

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