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Labour would seek an EU-wide agreement with Brussels on the return of migrants to try to tackle cross-Channel clandestine migration, party leader Sir Keir Starmer said on Wednesday.
Starmer, who is seeking to build his international profile, said he would also treat people smugglers like terrorists if he won power in a general election, freezing their assets and restricting their movement.
In an interview with The Times, Starmer confirmed that Labour would overturn the new law that stops cross-Channel migrants claiming asylum in Britain. He said Conservative plans to deport people to Rwanda were inhumane.
In the long run, Starmer said Labour would try to strike a returns agreement with the EU for asylum seekers adding that a “quid pro quo” of any deal, such as accepting quotas of migrants from the EU, would be the subject of negotiation.
Starmer is to embark on his biggest move yet on the world political stage in the coming days, attending a gathering of centre-left leaders in Canada this weekend and meeting France’s president Emmanuel Macron next week.
Macron last weekend on the margins of the G20 summit in New Delhi informed Rishi Sunak, UK prime minister, that he would be meeting Starmer in Paris.
While Macron has regularly met opposition leaders of countries with close ties to France, the meeting is a coup for Starmer, as he tries to burnish his credentials as a prime minister-in-waiting.
A Remainer in the Brexit referendum, Starmer hopes to refashion Britain’s relationship with the EU if he wins the general election expected next year.
Starmer’s allies were also delighted that the meeting, expected to take place early next week, was in the works. “It’s great news,” said one.
Ahead of the Élysée Palace meeting, Starmer will attend a gathering of centre-left leaders and politicians in Montreal on Friday and Saturday, where he is expected to set out his foreign policy stance.
Other attendees will include Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s prime minister, and Jacinda Ardern, former prime minister of New Zealand.
The meeting has echoes of the “Third Way” conferences organised by Sir Tony Blair, former UK prime minister, and Bill Clinton, former US president, in the late 1990s.
Blair, who on Wednesday told the Financial Times that Starmer would inherit a country “in a mess” if he won power, will also be at the meeting in Montreal.
Sunak met Macron in March at a bilateral summit that was characterised as something of a “bromance” between the two former bankers, both in their forties. The meeting resulted in a new agreement to help curb cross-Channel migration.
The deal, under which the UK will pay France €541mn (£478mn) over three years, is part of a larger effort during the past year by both sides to rebuild relations after the tumultuous Brexit period, during which Macron and then prime minister Boris Johnson often clashed.
The diplomatic and historic relationship between the two countries will also be on display next week when King Charles makes a three-day state visit to France, which will include a dinner at the Versailles palace and a speech in the Senate.
Number 10 said on Wednesday of Macron’s meeting with Starmer: “It’s not unusual for opposition leaders to meet world leaders.”
But the fact that Macron is rolling out the red carpet for Sunak’s main electoral opponent will cause irritation in Conservative circles.
One Tory official reflected that Ed Miliband, former Labour leader, met France’s then-president François Hollande in 2012. “Look how that turned out,” the official said, alluding to Miliband’s loss in the 2015 election.
Starmer’s meeting with Macron next week is not his first with a major world leader. Last year he met Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, who belongs to the Social Democrats, Labour’s sister party. Starmer’s spokesperson declined to comment.
David Cameron, former Conservative prime minister, met Angela Merkel, Scholz’s predecessor, in Berlin before entering Downing Street in 2010.