What does the UK’s small boats plan mean for relations with France?


Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak meet in Paris on Friday for the first bilateral summit between France and Britain since 2018. High on the agenda will be the longstanding row over small boats crossing the Channel, given new impetus by the plan to tackle the issue announced by the UK on Tuesday.

What’s the state of Anglo-French relations?

Strained by years of ill-tempered Brexit negotiations and a series of heated cross-Channel disagreements, relations have improved markedly since the departure of Boris Johnson, viewed by Paris as fundamentally untrustworthy.

Last week’s agreement on changes to the Northern Ireland protocol have further raised expectations, with the British prime minister hailed by French commentators as less ideological and far more pragmatic than Johnson.

What are the two countries’ stances on small boats?

Britain has long claimed that France is not doing enough to stop crossings, which rose from 8,000 in 2018 to 45,000-plus last year after tighter security at the Channel tunnel and ports made it almost impossible to cross by train, truck or ferry.

After the deaths of 31 people in the Channel when their inflatable boat sank in November 2021, Johnson said it was clear that French operations to stop the boats leaving “haven’t been enough”, despite £55m of British financial support.

France rejects that. Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, has said the main responsibility lies with people smugglers in the UK, Germany and Britain, and argues France “is suffering the consequences of UK asylum policy, not vice versa”.

Paris also resents British arguments that the minority of refugees in France who want to seek asylum in the UK should do so in France, noting that the UK already receives fewer applications than most EU countries – 75,000 last year, against 180,000 in France.

What does France do to stop small boats and how successful is it?

Under a landmark agreement in July 2021 Paris undertook to once more double the number of police and gendarmes patrolling a longer stretch of the northern French coast between Boulogne and Dunkirk and around Dieppe.

Another agreement – the fourth in three years – in November 2022 means France now deploys 900 or so officers along the coast, as well as surveillance technology including drones and thermal cameras.

The two countries are exchanging information on smuggling gangs as well as security and immigration officials, and France has pledged to set up holding camps for people headed for the UK in the south of France.

French officials stress the difficulty of securing 150km (90 miles) of coastline in the face of increasingly organised international criminal gangs, but have significantly increased the number of crossings they have prevented.

According to figures from the French senate, 3,600 people were stopped from crossing between August 2019 and August 2020 and more than 10,500 between August 2020 and August 2021. By August last year the figure had risen to 30,000.

“France considers that it is doing its maximum to monitor its coast,” a 2021 senate report said, adding that the effort had so far cost the country more than €200m (£178m).

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Where does France lay the blame?

Besides the smugglers, Paris sees the UK government’s decision to close most legal routes for asylum seekers to reach the UK or to register their claims from outside the country as a major contributing factor.

Darmanin has also blamed the lack of national identity cards and a poorly controlled labour market in Britain, saying the ease with which people can work illegally is a significant pull factor, and criticised Britain’s immigration procedures.

“The UK does not handle illicit migration well,” he said. “France expels about 20,000 illicit migrants a year while Britain manages 6,000 – about four times less than France, despite the fact that the UK gets about half as many illicit migrants.”

Darmanin has also said the UK government’s attitude has not helped. He called a 2021 plan by the then home secretary, Priti Patel, to turn back boats and withhold cash “blackmail”, “posturing” and a violation of international law.

What does it propose?

Under the 2004 Le Touquet agreement, France and the UK operate reciprocal border controls in each other’s countries, making the small boat crossings – in principle, at least – France’s problem.

There are no official calls to tear up the treaty. But French officials have suggested Britain should set up an asylum processing centre in northern France so claims could be processed there, allowing people to travel legally to the UK if accepted.

How might Paris view Britain’s latest plan?

Plans to detain and remove people who arrive “irregularly” – such as in small boats – unveiled by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, have been reported in France as showing Britain “deliberately flirting with the limits of international law”.

As analyst Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group noted, the plan could actually make it harder for Macron to help further over small boats – partly because doing so would increase pressure on him for France’s far right to do the same, and partly because France would risk becoming complicit in the UK breaching international law.

However constructive the recent outbreak of peace between Paris and London, it seems unlikely the small boats problem will be resolved while demand for migration to Britain exists and the UK blocks legal asylum routes.

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