France-UK acrimony impedes progress on channel crossings

Migrants are brought ashore onboard a RNLI Lifeboat, after having crossed the channel, in Dungeness, Britain, November 24, 2021. REUTERS
At times, the quarrels between Britain and France can seem trivial and more than a little petulant. But the latest round of recrimination, following the tragic deaths of at least 27 migrants in a flimsy inflatable boat off the French coast, puts the two countries at odds on one of the thorniest issues they face.

The rising number of migrants risking their lives to cross the English Channel is both a humanitarian crisis and a complex law enforcement challenge. Experts say it will not be helped by the acrimonious back-and-forth between French and British officials that led France on Friday to rescind an invitation for Britain’s Home secretary, Priti Patel, to attend an emergency meeting on the crisis.

Rather than working together to curb these hazardous sea journeys, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Emmanuel Macron almost immediately fell into a familiar pattern: questioning each other’s motives, seeking to score political points and casting blame for an intractable global problem that afflicts both their countries.

The charges and countercharges threatened to plunge relations between Britain and France into an even deeper freeze, after a series of disputes over fishing rights, a ruptured submarine alliance and the future of Northern Ireland. Rather than being drawn together by Wednesday’s disaster, one of the deadliest ever in the English Channel, the two neighbours were being pulled further apart.

“This is a different order of magnitude because it concerns human lives and because it’s politically explosive for both sides,” said Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to France. “It’s a much bigger issue, and I don’t see how you can get to a reset in the relationship until you solve this.”

The problem, Ricketts and others said, is that France, with a steady stream of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and a lengthy coastline to police, will never be able to prevent every migrant from reaching Britain. The best the two can hope for is a sharply reduced flow, and even that would require a degree of cooperation that seems wishful thinking in the current strained atmosphere.

Despite the anti-immigrant fervour stoked by Brexit, Britain continues to attract migrants because of its English language — which many have some command of — and because it does not have national ID cards, which makes it easier for people without legal status to work.

The cross-channel dispute has already showed signs of widening. French fishermen briefly blocked trucks Friday from entering and leaving the channel tunnel and impeded ferries at the port of Calais to highlight a festering dispute with Britain over fishing licenses.

The latest diplomatic eruption came after Johnson sent — and immediately posted on Twitter — a letter to Macron in which he laid blame for the crisis on France and proposed that it commit to taking back all asylum-seekers who make it to Britain, a suggestion the French have already rejected multiple times.

Macron, who had discussed the crisis with Johnson earlier by phone, reacted acidly. “You don’t communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and by letters that you make public,” he said.

“We aren’t whistleblowers, come on,” a visibly irked Macron said at a news conference in Rome, where he was on an official visit.

Other French officials were even more withering. They said Johnson’s letter did not match what he and Macron had discussed and suggested he was exploiting the crisis for domestic political gain. They flatly rejected the proposal that France take back asylum-seekers from Britain.

Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesman, said the letter was “both poor in content and completely inappropriate in its form.”

France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, then announced that Patel was no longer invited to a meeting that France will hold in Calais on Sunday with ministers in charge of immigration from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the European Commission.

Diplomats said that for Britain not to have a seat at the table made little sense since the cross-channel traffic is central to the problem. It was also a discouraging sign, they said, of how badly relations between the two countries had deteriorated.

British officials said they hoped France would reconsider its decision. A spokesman for the government said Johnson wrote the letter “in the spirit of partnership and cooperation” and posted it in the interests of transparency.

But British diplomats said the letter seemed calculated to provoke the French and would further fray a relationship between Johnson and Macron that was already marked by mutual mistrust.

Peter Westmacott, who preceded Ricketts as British ambassador to France, said: “The French feel that the Brits don’t negotiate in good faith, that the EU has done a lot to accommodate British demands, and that London is playing political games. They are not beyond playing politics themselves but aren’t quite sure how to respond.”

For both leaders, the political pressures are only likely to increase. Macron, who is running for reelection in May, faces a challenge from the nationalist right. His rivals express scepticism about the EU and its immigration policies, with one, Éric Zemmour, a far-right TV star and writer, even claiming that Britain won the battle of Brexit.

For Johnson, images of migrants in makeshift dinghies landing on the shores of Kent could erode his support among voters who backed him in 2019 on the promise that Brexit would enable Britain to control its borders. It adds to the perception of a government adrift at a time when the Conservative Party is dealing with a corruption scandal and economic disruptions caused by Brexit and the pandemic.

“Migration feeds into this sense that Boris Johnson doesn’t understand his blue-collar political base,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. And unlike earlier fears of immigration, he said, the channel crossings are “a much more emotive and symbolic form of migration that amplifies a sense among some voters that there is very little the government can do to control this issue.”

Goodwin said it was no accident that the migrant standoff had coincided with the return to prominence in Britain of Nigel Farage, a right-wing pro-Brexit leader who has long campaigned on anti-immigration appeals. Farage, now a broadcaster for news channel GB News, regularly inveighs against the influx of boats.

While the migrant issue has long been a source of friction between Britain and France, it has also produced examples of creative collaboration.

In 2003, the two countries signed the Treaty of Le Touquet, which stationed border officials in each other’s jurisdictions so they can check the passports of travellers before they cross the channel. That cuts down the number of asylum-seekers in Britain because some are turned back before reaching British soil, where under international law, they are entitled to claim asylum.

Now diplomats worry that this treaty could be a casualty of the escalating tensions. The French foreign ministry insisted that it would stand by the agreement. But Zemmour, for one, has called for France to rip it up, saying it is an insult to the French. That would harm Britain more than France, experts said, because the flow of migrants is one way.

Beyond that, they said, Britain and France need to work together to develop ways to monitor the coastline. In his letter, Johnson proposed sending British police officers to help patrol French beaches — a suggestion that is likely to go nowhere with the French and a sign that the two countries are still operating on different pages.

But Ricketts said he favoured allowing British officers to go there as observers, if only to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge facing the French.

“It is a really tough thing to police 250 miles of beaches, and they are doing it on behalf of the British,” he said.

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