London: 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 takes 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.
In a separate dispute that also derives from the intensifying animosity between the two countries, French fishermen started blocking access to ports in northern France to try to heap pressure on the U.K. over post-Brexit fishing licenses. They plan to block freight using the Eurotunnel between Britain and France later Friday. 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.”
The U.K. and France have been at loggerheads on issues from defense to trade since Britain’s divorce from the European Union. There are personal tensions, too, between Johnson and French President Emmanuel 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.
The rift 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.
“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.- Bloomberg