CALAIS, France – A migration dispute between Britain and France further intensified on Friday, as France scrapped a high-profile meeting with the British side in the wake of a tragedy in the English Channel that left at least 27 migrants dead on Wednesday.
France has reacted angrily to Britain’s handling of the crisis after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote a letter on Thursday evening to French President Emmanuel Macron – and then posted it in full on social media – calling on France to take back migrants who succeed in making the dangerous crossing across the English Channel.
“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,” added Macron. “We will see with the British how to work effectively when they decide to be serious.”
Earlier on Friday, France announced that Home Secretary Priti Patel, Britain’s interior minister, was no longer invited to weekend talks in France.
The interior ministers of France, Britain and several other European countries were set to meet in Calais on Sunday to discuss joint efforts to combat human trafficking in the region, after France called for more support from its neighbors.
In the letter that has caused offense in France, Johnson renewed calls for the establishment of “joint patrols” by British and French authorities along the coast of France. He also demanded a pact that would allow migrants to be deported back to France. These ideas have been proposed by Britain before – and rejected by France.
Johnson also said in the letter that he welcomed Patel’s invitation to Calais to meet 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 the British participation, French government spokesman Gabriel Attal on Friday morning called the letter “bereft of substance” and “totally inappropriate in terms of form.”
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.
Previous British proposals of joint patrols have raised concerns in France over sovereignty, and Attal said the letter did not reflect what Macron and Johnson discussed when they spoke on the phone on Wednesday night, shortly after the incident in the English Channel.
“We are sick of double speak,” Attal said.
After their call, Downing Street said that Macron and Johnson agreed to step up Anglo-French cooperation. But the French readout was less optimistic, with the Élysée presidential palace saying that Macron had urged Britain to “refrain from exploiting a dramatic situation for political purposes.”
Britain and France have both argued that they share the same goal – curbing illegal migration and human trafficking in the English Channel – but their ideas on how to achieve that aim differ widely.
France has said it will expand sea monitoring in the region following Wednesday’s incident, which cost the lives of 17 men, seven women and three presumed minors. But to combat human trafficking, 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 to the country for asylum seekers. Currently, the migrants who are in France can apply for asylum in Britain only if they are physically there – meaning they have to take deadly risks in rickety boats with traffickers.
The French government additionally accuses Britain of a lack of action against traffickers as well as businesses that employ undocumented migrants.
But in a radio interview on Thursday, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin also named Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as countries that are also linked to trafficking networks, adding 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.
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Adam reported from London.