Crossings will not be stopped until the UK reaches a more grown-up relationship with its former EU partners
The tragic loss of 27 lives in the Channel is a painful reminder of the failure of politicians on both sides of it. Although Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron have slightly softened their usual rhetoric, there is little sign of them finding the common solutions their countries need to prevent a repeat of the disaster.
The tragedy has not ended the pointless blame game over the small boats. Downing Street said the prime minister and French president agreed in their phone call last night on “stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings”. But the Elysee Palace said Macron urged Johnson to stop “politicising” the crisis for “domestic gain”. In turn, UK sources accused Macron of “playing politics with people’s lives.”
In the Commons today, the home secretary, Priti Patel, said that she had offered for the UK to work with France to stop the “absolutely unnecessary” trips across the Channel using small boats. “People should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and nobody needs to flee France in order to be safe,” Patel added.
The home secretary reiterated that the UK is ready to send hundreds of Border Force officials and police to help their French counterparts patrol the 93-mile coastline. However, there is little chance of it being accepted: the French reply with a word Johnson knows well – “sovereignty.”
UK ministers are adamant France is not doing enough to stop the crossings. They point to pictures on Channel 4 News showing French police apparently turning a blind eye while a small boat full of migrants departed yesterday morning, with police reinforcements arriving only after the boat was long gone.
Such exchanges, even after Wednesday’s tragedy, highlight that immigration is a hot political potato in France as well as Britain. Macron has a difficult election to fight next spring and Johnson has hit his worst patch since becoming prime minister; neither is in conciliatory mode.
Post-Brexit tensions are a barrier to co-operation. The UK would like to be able to return migrants to the EU, as it could – on paper, at least – while it was a member of the bloc. It raised the idea in the Brexit negotiations but there were no takers on the EU side. Macron has accused the UK government of swinging between “partnership and provocation.” UK ministers cite a leaked letter from Jean Castex, the French prime minister, suggesting the EU must make clear that “leaving the union is more damaging than remaining in it”. That came during the dispute over UK fishing licences for French boats. Johnson and Macron also crossed swords over the UK’s attempt to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol and its decision to join the Aukus security pact with the US and Australia, which saw France lose a contract to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
The French, who routinely shut down temporary camps near Calais where refugees and migrants live in terrible conditions, want the UK to process asylum seekers in holding centres in northern France. But UK ministers fear that would act as a magnet for more migrants to make their way to the area. They insist the UK does provide “safe routes” but their critics think otherwise; a resettlement scheme for Afghans has still not been set up and some Afghans who worked for the British have reportedly taken their chances in small boats.
Patel is more interested in headline-grabbing gimmicks such as processing “illegal” migrants in third countries such as Albania or Rwanda. No takers there yet either. Another idea is to “push back” the boats to France, a tactic ministers have approved but which has thankfully not yet been used. Remarkably, Kevin Foster, the immigration minister, refused to rule it out today, saying it was a matter for “commanders on the ground.”
Johnson is running out of patience with his close ally Patel and deeply frustrated the crossings are making a nonsense of his promises to “take back control” of the UK’s borders.
Sadly, raw politics mean this week’s events are unlikely to make Johnson and Patel more open to increasing “safe routes.” Indeed, they are currently looking at further legal moves to make the crossings harder, on top of the Nationality and Borders Bill going through parliament, which will reduce asylum-seekers’ grounds for appeal to speed up cases that take several years.
The crossings will not be stopped until the UK reaches a more grown-up and co-operative relationship with its former EU partners. But playground politics will likely remain the order of the day.
Pierre-Henri Dumont, the MP for Calais, was right to argue: “It’s time for both our governments to stop blaming each other and to try and talk to each other and find real solutions.” Sadly, there seems little appetite for that on either side of the Channel.