The European Union has told the UK it is not willing to negotiate a returns agreement for migrants arriving via unauthorised routes, according to reports.
If correct, it would mean Britain is unlikely to be able to return refugees arriving via small boats across the Channel back to France in the near future.
Rishi Sunak has pushed for a bilateral returns agreement with Paris but French President Emmanuel Macron, a close ally of the Prime Minister, has said any deal must be at an EU level.
Mr Macron, during the UK-France Summit in March, said any returns mechanism would not be “an agreement between the UK and France, but an agreement between the UK and the EU”.
Not being entertained
According to reports in The Times and the Daily Mail, a leaked memo has suggested that such a pact is not being entertained by Brussels, which is dealing with its own internal rows over migration and refugee returns reforms.
The UK Government said it “remains open” to working towards a UK-EU returns accord, with Brexit having taken London out of the Dublin Agreement that currently allows for member states to return refugees.
Mr Sunak wants a deal to allow the UK to return foreign nationals who have been found to be in violation of immigration law.
It could potentially allow ministers to send back asylum seekers arriving from France via small boats, with Mr Sunak having made tackling the migrant crisis one of his top priorities ahead of the next election.
The Times suggested any Brussels deal would likely come with the condition that Britain share in Europe’s effort to resettle hundreds of thousands of migrants entering the EU through irregular means, including migrants arriving by boat to Italy or Greece.
But, citing Cabinet Office notes, the newspaper said a senior aide to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had rejected negotiations on fresh terms following a push by Mr Sunak during talks at the Council of Europe in Iceland in May.
German politician Bjoern Siebert, Ms von der Leyen’s head of cabinet, is said to have told Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s national security adviser and a former ambassador to the EU, that the “commission is not open to a UK-EU readmissions agreement”.
The commission is said to dispute the recording of events. It has been contacted for comment.
Deaths in The Channel
The reports come after at least six people died and dozens were rescued after a boat got into difficulty off the coast of Sangatte, northern France, on Saturday.
A UK Government spokeswoman said: “We remain open to working with the EU to take forward negotiations on a UK-EU returns deal, as part of our international efforts to tackle illegal migration and to crack down on these exploitative gangs.
“We are in regular conversations with our European counterparts on a range of issues relating to migration and asylum.
“We agreed with members of the Calais Group of Northern European nations to work towards an EU-UK cooperation agreement on migration in a joint statement at the group’s December 8 2022 meeting.”