Britain’s Patel snubbed by France as Macron says Johnson is not ‘serious’

Priti Patel, U.K. home secretary, on day two of the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester, U.K., on Oct. 4, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Hollie Adams.

France canceled talks with Boris Johnson’s government on how to stop people trying to reach the U.K. in small boats and Emmanuel Macron slammed the British premier for not being “serious,” in a dramatic deterioration of a relationship severely strained by Brexit.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin scrapped planned discussions on Sunday with his U.K. counterpart Priti Patel. He will instead focus on talks with European Union ministers, Macron told reporters during a visit to Rome. The French president also criticized Johnson for posting on Twitter a letter he wrote demanding France take the migrants back.

“I am surprised by methods when they are not serious; a leader doesn’t communicate with another by tweets or letter that is made public,” Macron said. France will see about working with the British “if they decide to be serious,” he added.

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The U.K. and France have been at loggerheads on issues from defense to trade since Britain’s divorce from the EU. There are personal tensions, too, between Johnson and Macron, evident in the fallout over Australia’s decision in September to ditch a French submarine contract in favor of an agreement with the U.S. and the U.K.

In another dispute that also derives from the intensifying animosity between the two countries, French fishermen blocked access to ports in northern France to try to heap pressure on the U.K. over post-Brexit fishing licenses. They also jammed the ramp leading to the Eurotunnel freight terminal between Britain and France near Calais from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. Police officers said there were no tensions, no violence. At the British end, traffic was flowing freely into the terminal with no reported delays.

Shares in tunnel operator Getlink slumped in Paris.

“This is a warning shot,” Gerard Romiti, head of France’s leading fishing union, said by phone. “I wish we weren’t forced to do this but we are. We need to stand by our fishermen.”

Philippe Fait, the mayor of Etaples-sur-mer, a fishing town of 12,000 inhabitants, was among the protesters at the freight terminal. He said there’s been an impact on his community since some haven’t received licenses to fish.

“We want the Brexit accord to be delivered” by the year’s end, Fait said, calling Brussels to flex its muscles.

The broader rift between the U.K. and France has hampered efforts to agree a joint approach to tackling the small boats crisis in the Channel. After at least 27 died when their boat capsized on Wednesday, Johnson criticized France for not doing enough to prevent people from making the crossings.

In the letter that the prime minister wrote to Macron on Thursday, he set out five steps he said could be taken together to prevent another tragedy.

They include:

– Joint patrols to prevent more boats leaving French beaches

– Deploying more advanced technology like sensors and radar

– Reciprocal maritime patrols in each other’s territorial waters and airborne surveillance

– Better intelligence-sharing to deliver more arrests and prosecutions

– “Immediate work” on a bilateral returns agreement with France, alongside talks to establish a U.K.-EU returns agreement

“An agreement with France to take back migrants who cross the Channel through this dangerous route would have an immediate and significant impact,” he wrote in the letter.

France has already repeatedly rejected the idea of joint patrols on sovereignty grounds. The idea of a returns agreement is also politically sensitive – in the U.K. and across Europe.

In a message seen by Agence France-Presse, Darmanin told Patel that Johnson’s letter was a “disappointment.” He added: “Making it public made is even worse. I therefore need to cancel our meeting in Calais on Sunday.”

U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he hoped France would “reconsider” its decision to disinvite Patel from the talks. “I think quite simply no nation can tackle this alone,” he told BBC TV, adding that it’s “in our interests and their interests” to solve the problem.

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