EU ministers are meeting in Calais on Sunday to discuss how to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats, but without the UK home secretary, Priti Patel, whose invitation was rescinded following a diplomatic row with France.
France has invited representatives from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the European Commission to the meeting, which was called last week after 27 people hoping to claim asylum in the UK died making the perilous crossing.
Following that event, the biggest loss of life in the Channel since the Channel route emerged, the French government is seeking greater European co-operation to clamp down on people smugglers.
The French government has said five suspected people smugglers arrested near the Belgian border last week had bought unspecified materials in Germany. People seeking to reach the UK often come to France via Belgium to find the shortest crossing point.
Patel had been due to attend the meeting but was disinvited after Boris Johnson published his proposals to tackle the issue in a letter to Emmanuel Macron that was released on Twitter before the French president had received it.
Macron said Johnson’s methods were “not serious”. The French government objected to the prime minister’s ideas, including a proposal for all people who cross the Channel to be sent back to France, but also the fact the letter was made public.
Relations between France and Britain have hit a low point, with simmering disputes over post-Brexit fishing licences and wider EU-UK relations.
The diplomatic spat came as more details emerge of the people who lost their lives in the Channel last week. They included a 45-year-old woman from the Iraqi Kurdish town of Darbandikhan and her three children, a 22-year-old daughter and two sons aged 16 and seven.
France says it has saved the lives of 7,800 people since the start of the year and arrested 1,500 people smugglers. The French government insists there needs to be a European solution.
Also taking part in the meeting is the EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, who has invited representatives from the EU border agency, Frontex, and EU police agency, Europol.
EU member states could call on these agencies and the commission for emergency funds, staff and equipment, such as drones, to patrol the border. Without the involvement of Britain – the destination of choice for people camped out in northern France – there are limits to what can be agreed.
Since Brexit, the UK no longer has the option to return people seeking asylum to the EU. Under the EU’s Dublin system, member states can transfer asylum claimants back to the EU country they arrived in, or onward to another where the person has family connections.