The EU and the UK have agreed to collaborate on curbing irregular migration across the English Channel in a further sign of warming relations after years of post-Brexit tension.
Brussels and London will negotiate a deal to exchange intelligence, expertise and personnel to combat smugglers after six months of deadlock over the plan.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, endorsed the idea of London working with Frontex, the EU border agency, at a meeting on the sidelines of the Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik.
“We need to do more to co-operate across borders and across jurisdictions to end illegal migration and stop the boats,” Sunak said.
Sunak has come under growing pressure from cabinet ministers and senior Tory MPs to tackle migrant crossings on the English Channel after bruising local election results when the party lost 1,000 council seats.
Sunak and French president Emmanuel Macron agreed to strengthen bilateral collaboration on the Channel in a bid to reduce migration. However, Tuesday’s announcement marks a significant step-up in Europe-wide efforts to tackle the problem and an acceptance by London that the UK cannot deal with it alone.
Four EU North Sea states had been pushing with the UK to have an agreement since last December but the commission had blocked it because of the post-Brexit dispute over trading arrangements with Northern Ireland.
That was settled by the Windsor framework signed in March and both sides have been seeking to improve relations since.
“The Windsor framework opened up the way,” said one EU diplomat. “The commission had blocked a Frontex deal while those talks were going on. Improved relations open up the door to mutually beneficial partnerships like this.”
After years of tensions under former prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration, Sunak has sought to strengthen diplomatic ties with Brussels on issues such as the war in Ukraine and migration. Speaking on Tuesday, the prime minister stressed that the UK remained a “proud European nation” willing to work with its neighbours to defend shared values.
Frontex has partnerships with 18 other countries, each one slightly different. The basic framework the UK wants would rule out deploying Frontex officers. However, staff could be exchanged and liaison officers posted to each other’s countries. They could also exchange information on migrant routes and smuggling gangs as well as share alerts about forged documents.
A commission spokesman said: “The strengthened co-operation will . . . enable Frontex and UK agencies to work together on critical operational measures. By pooling their resources, expertise and best practices, the EU and UK will be better equipped to address strategic challenges.”
Tensions remain, however, and the spokesman added that “actions undertaken within a Frontex working arrangement must be in full respect for the EU and UK’s international human rights obligations, including the European Court of Human Rights”.
EU migration commissioner Ylva Johansson has raised concerns about a UK immigration bill by which asylum seekers would be deported to a “safe” third country such as Rwanda for their application to be processed there, or to their country of origin. “I question whether this is in line with international obligations,” she said at a meeting in March.
The legislation, which is working its way through parliament, has also been criticised by the UN refugee agency and the Council of Europe itself, which said the bill would put the country in breach of the UN convention on refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Last month, the House of Commons passed amendments that would allow the home secretary to override judges at the ECHR in Strasbourg should they seek to block deportations to Rwanda, as they did last year.