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France-U.K. Acrimony Over Channel Crossings Deepens France-U.K. Acrimony Impedes Progress on Channel Crossings
(about 8 hours later)
PARIS French officials lashed out at Britain on Friday over a letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson advising France to take back migrants who reach British shores, escalating a diplomatic spat just days after 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel. LONDON 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 French denounced Mr. Johnson’s statement in blunt terms, calling it unacceptable, and disinvited Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, from a crucial meeting on the migrant crisis on Sunday. 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.
The dispute, in the immediate aftermath of one of the deadliest disasters ever in the English Channel, underscored the diplomatic hurdles the two countries face in addressing the problem, as lingering tension over Brexit and disagreements on issues including trade and fishing rights continue to roil their relationship. 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.
In a letter sent to President Emmanuel Macron of France on Thursday night, Mr. Johnson wrote that France and Britain should “put in place a bilateral readmissions agreement to allow all illegal migrants who cross the Channel to be returned,” suggesting that if France took back migrants it would be a major step toward fixing the problem. 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 neighbors were being pulled further apart.
The letter prompted a fierce reaction from Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesman, who said the letter was “both poor in content and completely inappropriate in its form.” “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.”
“Enough with the doublespeak, enough with the constant externalization of problems,” Mr. Attal, visibly irritated, told BFMTV on Friday morning. “It makes you wonder if Boris Johnson doesn’t regret having left Europe, because every time he has a problem, he thinks that Europe should handle it.” The problem, Mr. 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.
Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, quickly announced that Ms. Patel was no longer invited to an emergency meeting that France will hold in Calais on Sunday with ministers in charge of immigration from neighboring countries like Belgium and Germany. Despite the anti-immigrant fervor 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.
Mr. Macron said on Friday that the crisis required “serious” cooperation but that Mr. Johnson’s letter was not a serious effort. The cross-channel dispute has already showed signs of widening. French fishermen briefly blocked trucks on 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.
“You don’t communicate from one leader to another on these issues by tweets and by letters that you make public, we aren’t whistleblowers, come on,” Mr. Macron said at a news conference in Rome, where he was on an official visit. The latest diplomatic eruption came after Mr. Johnson sent and immediately posted on Twitter a letter to Mr. 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.
On Wednesday, about 30 migrants crammed onto a flimsy inflatable vessel were shipwrecked in the English Channel’s frigid waters, and most of them men, women and children drowned. French prosecutors have opened an investigation to determine the exact circumstances of the disaster, and the identities and nationalities of most of the victims have not been confirmed. Mr. Macron, who had discussed the crisis with Mr. 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.
The number of migrants setting off into the sea has soared in recent months because France has cracked down on other routes to England, especially by ferry or by truck and train through the tunnel under the Channel. So far this year, there have been 47,000 attempts to cross the Channel, and 7,800 migrants had been saved from shipwrecks, according to French officials. “We aren’t whistle-blowers, come on,” a visibly irked Mr. Macron said at a news conference in Rome, where he was on an official visit.
On Twitter, where he also published the full letter to Mr. Macron, Mr. Johnson wrote that “an agreement with France to take back migrants who cross the Channel through this dangerous route would have an immediate and significant impact.” Other French officials were even more withering. They said Mr. Johnson’s letter did not match what he and Mr. 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.
“If those who reach this country were swiftly returned, the incentive for people to put their lives in the hands of traffickers would be significantly reduced,” Mr. Johnson said. He called it “the single biggest step” the two countries could take to address the issue. Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesman, said the letter was “both poor in content and completely inappropriate in its form.”
In his letter, Mr. Johnson noted that countries like Russia and Belarus already have readmission agreements with the European Union and that any bilateral agreement between France and Britain would be temporary, pending a broader deal between the E.U. and Britain. France’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, then announced that Ms. 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.
He also outlined other proposals, including better intelligence sharing, joint police patrols on French shores which France has already rejected and reciprocal maritime patrols in each country’s territorial waters. 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.
But French officials reacted furiously on Friday morning to the suggestion that France should take back migrants, calling the idea a nonstarter and accusing Mr. Johnson of using the migration crisis for domestic political ends. British officials said they hoped France would reconsider its decision. A spokesman for the government said Mr. Johnson wrote the letter “in the spirit of partnership and cooperation” and posted it in the interests of transparency.
Mr. Darmanin, in a letter sent to Ms. Patel and that was seen by the Agence-France Presse, said he was “disappointed” by the demands made in Mr. Johnson’s letter and found it “even worse” that he had made them public. But British diplomats said the letter seemed calculated to provoke the French, and would further fray a relationship between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Macron that was already marked by mutual mistrust.
Mr. Attal, the French government spokesman, told BFMTV that the publicly shared letter “did not match, at all, the exchanges that Boris Johnson had with the President over the phone as recently as Wednesday evening.” Peter Westmacott, who preceded Mr. Ricketts as British ambassador to France, said: “The French feel that the Brits don’t negotiate in good faith, that the E.U. 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.”
Mr. Attal added that the suggestion France should take back migrants who reach British shores “is obviously not what we need to fix the problem.” Instead, he said, Britain should send its own immigration officials to France, where they would examine the claims of asylum seekers trying to reach British shores. For both leaders, the political pressures are only likely to increase. Mr. Macron, who is running for re-election in May, faces a challenge from the nationalist right. His rivals express skepticism about the European Union and its immigration policies, with one, Éric Zemmour, a far-right TV star and writer, even claiming that Britain won the battle of Brexit.
Grant Shapps, the British Transport secretary, defended Mr. Johnson’s letter, telling the BBC that “friends and neighbors” had to work together and that he hoped France would reconsider disinviting Ms. Patel. For Mr. 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.
“It’s in our interests,” he said. “It’s in their interests. It’s certainly in the interests of people who are being people-trafficked to the U.K, with these tragic scenes we’re seeing.” “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.”
Mr. 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. Mr. Farage, now a broadcaster for the 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 travelers 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Ricketts said he favored 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.
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.