UK and EU Agree to Cooperate on Tackling Illegal Immigration as Post-Brexit Relations Thaw Further

LONDON (AP) -- Britain and its former partners in the European Union have struck a deal to cooperate more on tackling illegal migration, in the latest sign of a thawing in relations between the two sides following Brexit.

The British government said in a statement Friday that U.K. border agencies and Frontex, the EU's border and coast guard agency, will be able to access each other's intelligence to secure borders and tackle organized immigration crime. There will also be joint training, deployments of staff from one side to the other, and collaboration on research and development on new technologies.

The agreement, which will be signed later in London, doesn't include any bilateral returns agreement, which means neither side will be obliged to to take any asylum-seekers under burden-sharing arrangements agreed on between the EU's 27 member states.

"Organized immigration crime and people smuggling are global challenges that require shared solutions and ambitions," U.K. Home Secretary James Cleverly said.

"Our landmark working arrangement between the U.K. and Frontex is another crucial step in tackling illegal migration, securing our borders and stopping the boats," he added.

Relations between the two sides on an array of issues has been improving in the past few months, having been severely tested during the drawn-out divorce negotiations that followed Britain's 2016 vote to leave the EU.

The split became final in early 2021 with the agreement of a bare-bones trade and cooperation deal, but relations grew even more testy under strongly pro-Brexit U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister who took the helm in October 2022, has quietly worked to improve the United Kingdom's relationship with its European neighbors, though trade friction and deep-rooted mistrust still linger. Last year, for example, he agreed that Britain would rejoin the EU's $100 billion science-sharing program Horizon Europe.

Sunak has made cutting illegal immigration one of the main pillars of his leadership. More than 29,000 people arrived in the U.K. in small boats in 2023, having made the often treacherous journey across the English Channel.

Though that was down from nearly 46,000 the year before, Sunak has promised to "stop the boats," leaving him open to charges that he has failed to achieve one of his main objectives before a general election this year, the date of which he will decide.

Opinion polls show that Sunak's Conservatives are trailing far behind the main opposition Labour Party, and losing support to a new hard-right political party, which is focusing on immigration.