In fine weather on 6 August, a record 235 migrants made it across the Channel to British shores on small boats and rubber dinghies from northern France. The total so far this year now exceeds 4,000. A “furious” Priti Patel, the home secretary, has called for the Royal Navy to be deployed. Calling the figures “shameful”, she has also urged France to do more to stem the flow. Twenty-five Conservative parliamentarians have written to the government demanding tough action against these “invading migrants”. Boris Johnson has promised proposals to tighten up Britain’s asylum regime.
On the face of it, this all looks pretty embarrassing for a government that has always claimed “getting back control of our borders” as a principal virtue of Brexit. Yet it may not be entirely sorry to see this divisive issue resurface in British politics. Recent polling by ECFR confirms that a majority of Britons remain in favour of stricter border controls.
Yet the pandemic has also reminded us of just how dependent our health service is on overseas workers; and the polling shows an even larger majority in favour of freedom of movement for health workers to come to the United Kingdom. So public opinion has been softening on a key plank of Brexit, and the government may be happy to see the issue reframed as “people breaking into our country”.
Largely missing from all the excited reaction has been a recognition that this perilous exodus is scarcely a new phenomenon, for Britain’s European neighbours at any rate. In 2015, over 850,000 migrants reached Greece’s shores by sea. As migration routes shifted, over 180,000 landed in Italy in 2016, and almost 60,000 in Spain in 2018. There has been plenty of opportunity to work out that there is little navies can do in such circumstances, morally or legally, except rescue those on the boats they intercept. But Britain has so far been largely insulated from this crisis: by a fortunate geographic position; by the readiness of the French authorities to allow Britain to operate its border controls on the French side of the Channel; and by the EU’s Dublin Regulation, allowing it to return asylum seekers to the country through which they first entered the EU. In the year to September 2019, Britain received some 35,000 applications for asylum; the other 27 EU member states registered over 600,000 (and France had three times our total). Per head of population, Britain was seventeenth out of 28 in terms of asylum applications received.
So Britain has got off lightly so far – but it has not exactly rushed to give its European partners a helping hand. At the height of the crisis in 2015, when Germany was opening its doors to a million refugees, Britain’s contribution was to offer asylum for 20,000 Syrians over five years. But it adopted a “pick our own” approach, taking people direct from the region rather than relieving the pressure on other Europeans. And earlier this year the Johnson government refused to enshrine in post-Brexit law the scheme whereby unaccompanied child refugees have been allowed to join family already in theUK.
It should not surprise the British government if it finds it has not created any great store of goodwill among neighbours.
So it should not surprise the British government if it finds it has not created any great store of goodwill among neighbours in terms of readiness to share the asylum burden. Nor should it expect the French authorities to be falling over themselves to dedicate more of their own resources to solving a relatively small British border problem. An immigration minister has dashed to Paris, and claims to have secured French agreement to an (unspecified) “action plan” – there are rumours of a £30m British subsidy. But the mayor of Calais has been scathing, and called on Britain to “take care of its own responsibilities”.
Britain needs to tread very carefully here. It is not just that it could be counterproductive to carry on blustering about how the French should stop boat traffic, given the very real problems the French local authorities face with migrants congregating in their areas. Antagonise the French too far and they might even be tempted to take the British at their word about wanting to “get back control of our borders”, and give up policing who boards ferries and uses the Eurotunnel at the Calais end.
Wiser British heads are now advising that, rather than the theatrics of deploying warships and shouting at the French, we should focus on working with Europe to tackle the smuggling gangs, which are largely responsible for this grim business. Of course: but the UK had better move fast, because Brexit means that by the end of this year it will be out of Europol and Eurojust, the two agencies through which European policing and judicial cooperation are managed.
The hard fact is that, far from enabling stronger control of borders, Brexit is now putting Britain in a position of dependency on the ‘kindness of strangers’ – or at any rate of former European partners, whom our Brexit negotiating tactics seem almost designed to estrange. This was entirely predictable (and, indeed, predicted). But a mendacious Brexit campaign was never going to acknowledge such inconvenient truths; just as those responsible will now respond to increasing cross-Channel difficulties (not just over a few migrants, but over movement of goods and foodstuffs, and of course over fishing grounds) by stoking xenophobia and blaming everyone but themselves.
Patel was right: the current situation is indeed “shameful”. But that, alas, is an emotion to which she and her fellow Brexiteers are seemingly impervious.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.