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POLITICS

France-UK migrant crisis: UK must control borders post-Brexit, says EU commissioner

The European Commission's vice president Margaritis Schinas on Saturday told Britain it has to sort out its own migrant problems post-Brexit.

An EU Commissioner has told the UK to control its own borders post-Brexit.
An EU Commissioner has told the UK to control its own borders post-Brexit. Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

“The UK has left the European Union,” noted the Greek politician who coordinates a new pact on migration and asylum.

“So the UK should now decide how to organise its border management control,” Schinas told reporters on the southeastern Greek island of Kos to re-open a migrant camp.

“If I recall well the main slogan of the referendum campaign is ‘we take back control’.

“Since the UK took back control it’s up to them now to find the necessary measures to operationalise the control they took back,” he added. 

READ ALSO OPINION: France protects the UK from the migrant crisis, a fact Britain will never accept

Seventeen men, seven women and three minors died on Wednesday when their inflatable lost air and took on water off Calais, dramatically escalating a crisis that had already seen around 25,700 people cross the busy shipping channel this year in small boats.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that France would not let the Channel become ‘a cemetery’.

After the latest migrant tragedy, the UK and France have launched a war of words.

French President Emmanuel Macron hit out at British Prime Boris Johnson on Friday over a tweeted letter, accusing him of being “not serious”.

European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas says it’s up to the UK to control their borders now. Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / POOL / AFP

Johnson sparked fury in France after writing a private letter to Macron on Thursday evening proposing five ways to stop migrants crossing from France to Britain, then publishing it in full on his Twitter account.

The letter from the British PM to French president Emmanuel Macron includes a list of demands, such as putting British officers on French beaches for patrol and that France agrees to take back people whose asylum claims have failed.

“I am surprised by methods when they are not serious. One leader does not communicate with another on these questions on Twitter, by public letter… No, No,” Macron told reporters in Rome.

Relations between the two neighbours were already seen as at their most tense in decades following a series of disputes over Brexit, but the personal criticism represents a further turn for the worse.

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In response to Johnson’s letter, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin cancelled planned talks with his British counterpart Priti Patel on Sunday, informing her that she was no longer invited to a meeting with other European ministers.

Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium will meet in the northern French port of Calais on Sunday afternoon to discuss how to tackle people-smuggling gangs that provide boats to migrants seeking to cross the narrow waterway.

The invitation to France’s other northern neighbours reflects concern about how people-smuggling gangs are able to use Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as bases to organise their operations.

Many migrants are believed to travel to launch sites in northern France from Belgium, while inflatables and life jackets can be bought in other countries such as the Netherlands and Germany without raising suspicion.

But without the participation of Britain — the destination country for the thousands of migrants massed in northern France — there are limits to what can be achieved.

According to British authorities, more than 25,000 people have now arrived illegally so far this year, already triple the figure recorded in 2020.

The issue has added to growing post-Brexit tensions between Britain and France, with a row on fishing rights also still unresolved, leading to a blockade by French fisherman on Friday.

Member comments

  1. Fatuous remark from the EU commissioner about the UK controlling its borders when the 27 drowned in French waters. The bottom line is that none of these boats should have been allowed on the open sea and that is an exclusively French responsibility since it doesn’t want UK help. They are unseaworthy craft, carrying passengers and resulting in child endangerment and multiple deaths. The EU commissioner appears to be unaware which border is causing the problem .

    1. On humanitarian grounds yes. But I am unsure if maritime law allows for that.

      It is my understanding that France is not closed to working jointly with UK. However, working in partnership needs to be on collaborative terms and not exclusively to meet the needs of one party . The UK could help the situation by honouring what they said they would pay to France to make a start, and stop trying to dictate terms.

      Statecraft is key.

      1. All passenger vessels are licensed, or did you think it’s just pot luck whether your ferry gets you to the other side ? I’m afraid dancing round French sensibilities will not solve this problem. All the Boris proposals have previously been rejected by France which is why they appeared in an open letter as the only practical way of stopping this traffic. At some point, France will have to either adopt those proposals or accept that the Channel will become the graveyard Macron says he’s trying to avoid. It will be one or the other.

  2. If France is serious about stopping migrants crossing the Channel but rejects all UK suggestions, perhaps France should ferry them to Republic of Ireland. It’s in the EU and has an open land border with the UK. It might cause a bit of a fuss but I don’t see how relations with Britain could get much worse anyway and at least no one else would drown.

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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