Drowned migrants are victims of new European politics

While leaders open discussions, real change is required in Anglo-French relations to prevent more tragedies

With a daily record of 1,185 migrants on the Kent coastline on November 11, French authorities are clearly overwhelmed by the assembled mass of people seeking to cross to the UK.

Yet there is a strong argument that the 27 migrants drowned in the English Channel on Wednesday were victims of the new European political realities as much as the push and pull factors of migration.

Most observers agree that if there are to be no more, or at least fewer such tragedies, a functioning trust has to be rebuilt between London and Paris.

Since the 2016 European Union referendum, a deep chill has taken hold in the relationship between Britain and the continent.

Initially it was the vaccine wars over Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines that Britain kept for itself, then it was the enduring divide over the Northern Ireland protocol followed by French humiliation in the Aukus submarine pact between the US, Australia and the UK.

Relations with France are at their lowest ebb in decades if not centuries. There have been petty squabbles over fishing licences, detentions off the Channel Islands and the bust-up over the Aukus nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the US.

That posture may change in light of Wednesday’s tragedy. The British press had grim stories with pictures showing French police looking on as people smugglers' boats full of migrants were launched into the chilly English Channel.

But change needs to come from the top. Prime Minister Boris Johnson at least opened the communications channel in a call to French President Emmanuel Macron shortly after the drownings off Calais. The pair agreed to do “everything possible” to deter the people-smuggling gangs. “France will not let the Channel become a graveyard,” assured Mr Macron.

If anything tangible is to happen, it will require leadership from the top and probably a summit between the two leaders.

There does not appear to be an appetite for that as yet. Mr Macron, who is looking towards presidential elections in April next year, has little to gain from detente with Britain. Likewise, Mr Johnson’s largely Brexit-driven electorate will not keenly embrace a French rapprochement.

Migrant flows

This year, 25,000 asylum seekers – most from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Somalia – have embarked on the 32km journey across the busy sea lanes from France to England. Even with winter closing in, the trips will likely continue.

The UK has been pressing France to allow British border force officers to operate joint patrols along French beaches. While Britain already pays £54 million ($71.8m) to France for about 200 French officers, their remit has expanded hugely in the last year from 50km to 200km of coastline. The unspoken implication is that British patrollers would have a greater motivation in stopping migrants than their French colleagues.

Better co-ordination in preventing crossings and organising rescue teams would certainly result from an Anglo-French command centre in Calais, the closest crossing point.

The idea of providing “safe routes” to migrants, allowing them to travel to Britain without having to risk sea crossings, has been dismissed by Whitehall sources who suggested it would encourage even more asylum seekers to flock to northern France.

The proposal for allowing refugees to make British asylum claims in France or neighbours such as Belgium and the Netherlands has been similarly rejected.

Then there is the money. France wants more to assist in what is mainly a British problem. London might accede, or base it conditionally on sending British officers to France.

More financing would also help clear the UK's own 15-month backlog of asylum seekers allowing many more to be repatriated and deterring others from coming.

France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin criticised the UK’s failure to expel illegal arrivals.

In response, Ms Patel told the UK Parliament on Thursday that "nobody needs to leave France" to be safe and that there was "no quick fix" to prevent crossings.

France will invite interior ministers from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain, as well as the European Commission, to a crisis meeting on Sunday in Calais.

Without political resolve it is hard to see a fresh start from the summit. It is just as likely to be the weather that changes the situation first. A severe storm with winds of up to 120kph is predicted to hit Britain on Friday. Crashing waves will likely put a halt to both crossings and the inflammatory rhetoric.

Watch: what's it like for a migrant to cross the Channel by boat

Updated: November 25th 2021, 6:51 PM
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