(Photo by SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The British-French border con

In the English Channel, France fails and the British government spins

Over the weekend, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a new border agreement with France – “a significant moment for our two countries.” In reality, once again Britain bribed France to promise the help it had promised before. Why does the British government keep handing over resources to a con artist? Because the British government gets to say, “We have a new agreement! Problem solved!” It relies on the public forgetting the previous agreements. Yes, the British government too is a con artist, and the British public is the patsy.

In January 2018, Theresa May agreed to accept more migrants from France and to pay France to improve its border at Calais. In other words, she paid France to do what it should have been doing all along. The new agreement was an unnecessary repeat of an almost identical arrangement from 2003, which was renegotiated repeatedly, as the French turned a blind eye to illegal migrants, as long as they were emigrating to Britain. May should have repudiated it, but she repeated it. Her unadmitted hope was French help in reconciling Brexit.

French authorities did clear illegal camps near Calais, where migrants wait to break into lorries, caravans, ferries, and trains. However, migrants set up new camps, with the material help of non-governmental organizations. French authorities (at British cost) established their own reception centres, where migrants can claim asylum. However, most migrants prefer Britain, otherwise they wouldn’t have come all the way to Calais in the first place. French authorities tightened up security at the overland port, but migrants turned to boats.

What if the number of allocated patrol officers is a baker’s dozen? A doubling is still unimpressive

In Summer 2019, illegal crossings by boat reached a record. The British government begged for French help, to little effect. In December, Boris Johnson won an eighty-seat majority on a pledge to “get Brexit done,” which should have started with French concessions. Instead, early in 2020, Johnson’s government paid for French acquisition of drones and night vision equipment, as if France cannot afford these things for itself. British officials were sent to a joint co-ordination centre in Calais, and (from July 2020) a joint intelligence cell.

Meanwhile, clandestine boat entries rose, due to an unusually early summer, distorted responses to Covid-19, and the age-old triumph of human rights over national law. Consequently, the British government looks more like an enabler than an enforcer. In May, Nigel Farage showed French and British authorities colluding to escort boats across the English Channel. In September, the recently appointed “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” (Dan O’Mahoney) testified to Parliament that the government was facilitating illegal immigration for the safety of the migrants:

Currently, we are not intercepting migrant boats aggressively in any way. We are focusing our efforts on intercepting compliant migrants, both beginning the process of evidence and intelligence capture, and operating as a safety-of-life-at-sea operation, to ensure that no more lives are lost.

Very few illegal immigrants land their boats on beaches. (Official statements suggest less than a few per cent.) Instead, they are picked up at sea, by the Royal Navy and Maritime & Coastguard Agency, for landing at Dover.

Over the summer, the Border Agency’s reception centre in Dover grew in capacity from 96 to 350 migrants. The migrants are quickly shifted to accommodation northwards in order to clear capacity for new arrivals.

France waited until late November, after the season for boat crossings, before agreeing what it had agreed umpteen times already. Once again, the British government promised equipment: what the press release describes as “an enhanced package of cutting-edge surveillance technology – including drones, radar equipment, optronic binoculars, and fixed cameras.” If this exemplifies British negotiating, heaven help us with Brexit.

Priti Patel bragged about “doubling the number of police officers on the ground in France.” In reality, France agreed to double patrol officers on the beaches. Neither government has revealed the current number, but we know from our own eyeballs that police don’t patrol beaches. (They don’t reliably show up when called by witnesses to an illegal crossing.) What if the number of allocated patrol officers is a baker’s dozen? A doubling is still unimpressive. They have 150 km (93 miles) of beaches to patrol, just to cover the most trafficked area, says the Home Secretary. That’s about 4 per cent of France’s European coastline.

Allocating capabilities is not the same as getting motivated. France has proven by prior non-performance it is hardly motivated to stop migrants becoming Britain’s problem.

Priti Patel’s only statement on French performance is a claim that the proportion of crossings prevented rose from 41 per cent in 2019 to 60 per cent “in recent weeks.” However, the proportion will increase naturally in the last weeks of the year. Comparing these weeks to the whole of last year is selective. Worse, her claim does not square with testimony in September by the “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander.” He testified that 14,000 migrants had crossed the Channel in the first six months of 2020, before he separately touted French prevention of 3,000 others. That proportion is less than 18 per cent.

The local elections in May likely will be painful for the Conservative Party

Most of the preventions must have been achieved by coincidence, because the Joint Intelligence Cell in Calais had prevented only 1,100 crossings (as of the end of November). Priti Patel claimed that so far this year British authorities have convicted 57 persons for smuggling people (and another 46 for “offences related to the small boat crossings”). Given that 28,000 migrants will cross by boat this year, excluding thousands of other illegal crossings by planes, trains, and automobiles, 103 convictions seem unimpressive. I hardly see any fulfilment of Britain’s and France’s commitment “to make this route unviable.”

The British government will struggle to get tough with France while it wants French concessions on Brexit (such as fisheries). Meanwhile, even the recent American election reduces Britain’s room for manoeuvre. US President-elect Joe Biden insists that Britain must not introduce controls on the Irish border. And the most vociferous supporter of Ireland on this issue is France.

The British government might yet surrender more border control in its rush to achieve a deal with the EU before the end of the transition period. Alternatively, it could rationalize a no-deal Brexit as “taking back control.” In reality, a no-deal Brexit would make no difference to Britain’s current bilateral arrangements with France.

Given popular desire for both border control and reduced immigration, this government’s failure to deliver on either – and the Brexit Party’s promise (as Reform UK) to do better – ensure that the local elections in May likely will be painful for the Conservative Party.

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