Sunak Faces Cabinet Row Over Post-Brexit EU Borders Deal

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(Bloomberg) -- UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces criticism from within his own Cabinet over plans to pay the European Union for access to its Frontex border agency that would be limited by Britain’s post-Brexit status.

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Home Secretary Suella Braverman is seeking to announce a deal with the EU by the end of September for Britain to secure “third-country” co-operation with Frontex, according to people familiar with her thinking who requested anonymity talking about matters that aren’t public. The agency coordinates the border and coast guards of Europe’s Schengen area.

However, members of the government familiar with the proposed agreement said ministers are prioritizing speed over substance. The Home Office said in a statement that working with the EU is a “crucial part” of its efforts to control immigration.

The people suggested the proposal would do little to immediately help Sunak meet his promise to “stop the boats” and stem the arrival of asylum seekers across the English Channel, one of five key pledges the prime minister has asked voters to judge him by. More than 10,500 have made the crossing so far this year, including almost 3,000 in June.

The plans also expose the weaker position Britain finds itself in now it’s left the EU — a reality that the people said had dawned on ministers. While Britain was not a full member of Frontex when it was an EU member, it attended management board meetings, took part in its operations and enjoyed exchanges of border surveillance data.

Bare Bones Deal

Moreover, under an agreement reached in 2015, the UK did not have to make direct financial contributions to the agency. Before then, the EU tended to reimburse Britain’s costs. Now it is outside of the EU, the UK accepts it will have to make a financial contribution in exchange for only limited access to Frontex, the people familiar said.

Sunak and Braverman are determined to announce a deal with Frontex as soon as possible in order to demonstrate progress on the government’s migration pledge, the people said. That meant it would likely only be a bare bones outline that is light on detail, with specifics then negotiated at a later date, they added.

Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen began talks over working arrangements to exchange border intelligence and personnel in May. They discussed migration again on a call this weekend.

But while Downing Street will attempt to frame it as action to prevent small boats crossings, there will only be very limited work with Frontex in the Channel, with a longer-term focus instead on the EU’s southern border, according to the people.

While Britain would like full visibility of Frontex’s data and intelligence, as a non-EU member it would likely only be able to see some of the information. Similarly, the UK hoped to be able to attend all Frontex management meetings, but now expects only to receive invitations to some of them.

That means the proposal by Sunak and Braverman risks being criticized as a worse deal than the UK had with the EU before Brexit, a government official said.

(Updates with Home Office comment in third paragraph.)

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