Will France force Britain to move border home?

With the migrant crisis reaching new extremes in recent weeks there is a growing clamour in France to force Britain to move its border back to the UK. But will Paris really take it that far and is it even in their interests?

Will France force Britain to move border home?
British border officials in Calais, whose presence is increasingly resented in France. Photo: AFP

With French security forces and police struggling to repel repeated attempts by migrants to force their way into the Channel Tunnel, calls are growing in France for a longer term solution to be found that doesn't involve new barbed wire fences and more fierce guard dogs.

While in Britain, right wing politicians and press insist Paris should pull its finger out and use its police force to get a grip of the crisis, in France focus has shifted to the “totally one-sided” 2003 Le Touquet treaty.

That agreement effectively allowed Britain to move its border to the French side of the Channel. With border controls carried out on French soil it meant illegal immigrants could be barred from Britain without even making it there.

Although the agreement was reciprocal, there are not thousands of migrants trying to get from the UK to France, hence the feeling that France was hard done by.

Calls for France to scrap the treaty have been made by the outspoken mayor of besieged Calais, former ministers as well as by France’s national Commission for Human Rights.

“This tragic situation is largely the consequence of the signing of several bilateral treaties and arrangements between France and the UK,” said the commission in a recent statement.

The commission added that “tangle of treaties”, which are largely in contradiction of EU law “leads to France becoming the police arm of British migration policy.”

That same point was made in an editorial in the left wing newspaper Le Monde as well as by the former minister Xavier Bertrand who provoked the wrath of sections of the British last week, saying: “The British border is at Dover, not on our shores.”

While many in France are now looking back at the 2003 treaty with incredulity that former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy ever agreed to sign it, is the current government really intent on scrapping it, as some reports suggested? And can they?

According to professor Pierre-Yves Monjal, a public law specialist from the University of Tours, France does have the legal power to say stop.

“France could use article 56 of the Vienna Convention by applying the general EU rules (on terminating a treaty). But first we must look at whether the two countries took the initiative of including a 'termination' (denunciation) clause, which is certainly the case.”

The last article of the treaty of Touquet grants the two signatory powers the option of ending the treaty “at any time”, simply by informing the other party in writing, via diplomatic channels. There would however be a two year delay before the change came into effect.

France also has powers to make changes to the treaty by a “simple exchange of notes” as well as taking the more drastic measure of employing its right to “take all necessary measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security”.

If President François Hollande’s under-pressure government chose to make what would be a hugely controversial move, “everything would depend on the executive”, says Monjal.

“Parliament could be consulted but it is not mandatory. It would simply be enough if France announced to the UK that it was no longer willing to apply Le Touquet treaty,” he told L’Express magazine.

That move would almost certainly provoke a diplomatic crisis as well as a legal wrangle as London would likely challenge the decision at a national and European level.

The Socialist government is unlikely to go down that route at a time when leaders of both countries have been hailing their cooperation – at least in public.

A source at France interior minister told L’Express: “We do not consider this treaty is unchangeable, but what we are trying to do is negotiate with the UK to ensure the obligations our equally divided.

“We are proceeding step by step. It is not by creating a storm in the media that we will achieve it.”

The question of money also plays a part. In September last year London agreed to hand over an extra €15 million over three years to help deal with the crisis in Calais.

And last month Home Secretary Theresa May said another €7 million would be made available to increase security at the port and Eurostar terminal in Calais and only this week the UK said it was sending 100 extra border guards across the Channel. 

If the French ever told the UK to move back its borders, there would still be an urgent security crisis in Calais, except the British would likely withdraw their financial help.

And the fear in France is that even more migrants would head to Calais if they thought it would be easier to get to Britain.

A recent statement from the British Home Office tried to play down the fuss from France around the controversial Touquet treaty.

It read: “The UK and the French governments have worked closely and collaboratively over many years to secure our common border and tackle international criminality.

“The Le Touquet treaty and the juxtaposed border control were jointly agreed between the French and UK governments and work in the best interests of both countries.”

Despite the growing opposition and anger in France it seems the British border police are in France for the foreseeable future.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.