Photo by Andrew Aitchison
Artillery Row

Hold a mirror up to France

Imagine the Channel migrant crisis were reversed — who would the media blame?

Over the past few months, record numbers of people have attempted the channel crossing. In November, it was registered for the first time that over 1,000 people made the crossing in a single day. In the midst of this upsurge, a dinghy tragically sank, killing 27 people on board.

As the crisis rumbles on, centre-left commentators in the media have been quick to point the blame at Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. Many on the right are also starting to question whether Boris and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, are doing enough to combat the crisis.

It is true that the UK shares some of the responsibility for the crisis. Migrants can make the crossing knowing that, under the current ECHR and Human Rights Act rules, if they arrive it is very difficult to return them. This will remain the case until the law is changed, or until the UK establishes offshore application ability.

Despite this, I believe the primary blame for the crisis lies with France. Not convinced? Imagine, if you will, that the current situation were reversed.

The Royal Navy escort these flimsy boats to EU waters

Imagine “tent” cities on the Kent coast, similar to “the Jungle” that existed in Calais up until 2016. These camps are the type of camps that the Remain campaign (wrongly) warned would spring up if Britain voted to leave the EU, as part of their Project Fear campaign. The tent cities are full of migrants, hoping to reach the French coast and the “sunlit uplands” of the European Union.

The camps are filthy, riddled with violent crime, and it is here that people traffickers sell spaces on dinghies to cross the channel for thousands of pounds a ticket. The British police and immigration services are aware of undocumented people living in squalor in the camps, but largely do nothing.

Occasionally a camp is cleared to placate the locals, but it quickly springs up somewhere else. The British government make no effort to document, accommodate or process the migrants living in appalling conditions on its territory. Instead, it blames the “pull factor of the EU’s single market”, saying that many of these migrants have family in France and want to live in a French or German speaking society. A junior British minister suggests that the black market economies in the EU are also a pull factor, and that there are a “lack of safe asylum routes” into the EU.

People smugglers continue operating from the British coast, and the migrant camps expand. Dinghies are now launched daily from the UK towards the continent. Police are aware of the launches, but do nothing. The RNLI and Royal Navy escort these flimsy boats until they are in EU waters, despite their not being seaworthy. Thousands succeed in making the crossing.

Migrants die fleeing racist, Brexit-ridden, plague island,’ says Guardian op-ed

Then, tragedy strikes when a boat sinks. Statements are released from the British and French governments lamenting the loss of life. Trying to find a solution, Emmanuel Macron writes a letter to Boris Johnson urging increased collaboration, with joint patrols if necessary, to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

The British government issue a response claiming that the perfectly conciliatory letter is in fact unacceptable, a “threat to British sovereignty”, and that France is uninvited from crisis talks. British media later reports that in a meeting with some of his advisors, Boris Johnson branded Emmanuel Macron as “a clown in charge of a circus”.

Imagine the media commentary and narrative in the UK surrounding such a situation, especially post-Brexit.

Migrants die fleeing racist, Brexit-ridden, plague island, says an op-ed in the Guardian. The comments are largely agreed that Boris Johnson is personally responsible for each of their deaths.

UK condemned as using migrants to destabilise the EU’s single market, reports the BBC. Parallels are also drawn in The Times between Boris Johnson and Belarus’ Lukashenko. There are mass demonstrations outside Parliament as the crisis worsens.

One can imagine the EU Commission swiftly and publicly denouncing the UK and drawing up sanctions. The Labour party would likely call it a national scandal, and demand resignations, as well as accusing the government of taking a hardline stance as cynical electioneering.

The reaction to Boris Johnson’s letter was childish and unjustified

France has met with almost none of these responses. As was the case during the Brexit negotiations, everything from France and the EU is presented as the unquestionable truth, whilst the British position is heavily criticised.

“France cancels meeting with UK following Boris Johnson letter to Macron: Public letter deemed ‘unacceptable’ by French,” crowed the Independent.

ITV refused to criticise the French excluding the UK from crisis talks, instead asking, “Should Johnson be negotiating with Macron via Twitter?” as if that justified France’s absurd overreaction.

It was the same narrative at the BBC, Guardian and The Times.

Although it is heavily underreported in the media, the French blame for the crisis is clear. French authorities have done little to process migrants living under outrageous conditions in their territory. They have watched from the beaches as migrants board flimsy boats, which are then escorted by the French navy to British waters to await rescue. The reaction to Boris Johnson’s letter was childish and completely unjustified indeed the French government have been undiplomatically attacking the British government for months, first regarding the fishing crisis, and now with the migrant crisis.

In the long term, the UK needs to reform its laws. In the short term, the UK needs an agreement with France. This won’t happen until France is held to account for its failings in this crisis, and begins to negotiate with the UK in good faith.

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