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OPINION: France and the UK need to get real if they really want stop Channel migrant crossings

There may be no solution to the migrant crisis but the least France, the UK and Italy could do is be realistic and cooperate, writes John Lichfield. But is there any hope of that?

OPINION: France and the UK need to get real if they really want stop Channel migrant crossings
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (R) greets Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman (L) as she arrives for a meeting and joint declaration signature at the Hotel Beauvau Interior Ministry in Paris, on November 14, 2022. - France and the UK signed a new agreement to work together to stop migrants crossing the Channel to England in small boats, a source of huge bilateral tension. The deal, signed in Paris by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and British counterpart Suella Braverman, will see Britain pay France 72.2 million euros ($74.5 million) in 2022-2023 so that French authorities can increase by 40 percent the numbers of its security forces patrolling French northern beaches, the French interior ministry said. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / POOL / AFP)

The British Home Secretary, the daughter of migrants from Mauritius and Kenya, came to Paris this week to meet the French interior minister, whose parents are partly Maltese-Armenian and Algerian.

When Gérald met Suella… they had a great deal to talk about and a great deal in common.

Darmanin and Braverman are both on the right of the right wing of their governments. Both are politicians of immigrant origin. Both take a hard line on immigration.

Hypocrites? Maybe. When it comes to migration, as a former French interior minister said this week, there is bad faith on all sides. Everyone is partly right and everyone is partly wrong.

READ ALSO: How is France going to spend the €72 million to prevent Channel crossings?

Migrants or asylum seekers have very good reasons to seek new lives in foreign countries. Governments have good reasons to control the numbers of people crossing their borders.

The right-wing media, in both France and the UK,  may be right to say that some of them are illegal, economic migrants. But the right-wing media has equally little sympathy with genuine asylum-seekers who are fleeing war or religious or political oppression.

The French government now finds itself facing two ways on migration. Does that make Darmanin and President Emmanuel Macron two-faced? Inconsistent, certainly.

Looking north, Paris has agreed to step up its efforts to prevent migrants/asylum seekers from reaching Britain by sea.

Looking south, Paris has lambasted the new Far-Right-led government in Rome for refusing to allow a boat full of migrants to land in Italy.

Last week Macron abandoned long-standing French policy and allowed the Ocean Viking, with 230 migrants aboard, including the very young and the very sick, to land in Toulon. The Right and Far Right opposition in France accused him of being weak or “pro-migration”.

Once a single migrant ship is allowed to land in France, they said, other ships will follow. The critics are probably right. What would they have done in Macron’s place? Allowed the sick migrants to die?

The Italians say that they refused the Ocean Viking because they have already received 100,000 migrants or asylum seekers in 2022. It is time, they say, for other EU countries to share more of the burden.

France points out that roughly the same number of illegal migrants crosses its land borders unseen every year. Many of them cross from Italy.

READ ALSO: What is France doing to prevent migrant crossing to the UK?

And so it goes on…

On Monday, Suella Braverman and Gérald Darmanin signed a new Franco-British agreement – the fourth in three years – to discourage migrants or asylum seekers from crossing the most dangerous narrow sea strait in the world in flimsy dinghies.

The number of French police deployed will increase from 800 to 900. New drones will be purchased to fly over the many kilometres of beaches and sand dunes between Calais and the Belgian border.

British officials will be allowed to sit in French control rooms and French officials will be allowed to sit in British control rooms. Information on smuggling gangs will be exchanged (something that the UK bizarrely refused to do under Priti Patel, another Home Secretary of immigrant origin).

Holding camps for British-bound migrants will be created, 700 kilometres away in the south of France. Britain will pay Euros 72.2m to France to help pay for the cost of policing the Pas de Calais coast in 2022-3 – bringing the total to Euros 200m in the last four years.

The UK tabloid press moans (once again) about “British taxpayers’ money” being used to pay French police.  French taxpayers have spent four times that amount since 2018 to defend Britain’s borders.

The Braverman-Darmanin plan is a welcome improvement on the counter-productive French-bashing of the Johnson years.  

It may somewhat reduce the small boat crossings, which have all but doubled this year to 42,000

But the Calais problem will not be “solved”. It cannot be solved while the demand for migration to the UK exists; while the UK blocks all legal asylum routes; while the French and UK governments block other illegal routes; and while millions of euros can be made by smuggling gangs.

The French and UK governments have, in a sense, created the problem themselves.  

The Calais “crisis” has been going on for three decades with a changing cast of migrants, from Bosnians to Afghans to Iranians to Kurds to Eritreans to Albanians. Every war or political repression or economic crisis on the Eurasia-African land mass has brought a new wave of refugees to the Channel Coast.

The majority of illegal migrants who enter France each year are French-speaking, have connections in France and want to stay in France.  

A large minority enters France to try to reach the UK. They speak some English. They have family in the UK. They believe that it is easier to find work in the black economy in Britain because there are no identity cards.  

Until 2018, the dangerous small-boat method of crossing the straits of Dover was little used. It was the gradual blocking by France and Britain of illegal ferry and train crossings which created a new, business opportunity for people-trafficking gangs.

It now costs around Euros 3,500 for a place in a dinghy. One gang which was smashed by Europol in July had made a Euros 3.5m profit in a year.

What is the solution? There is no solution but there are ways that the migrant “crisis” could be managed more humanely.  

There is soon to be an EU-plus-UK ministerial meeting to discuss asylum policy and action against the continentally-organised people smuggling gangs.

Several EU countries have already offered to take the majority of the Ocean Viking migrants who have reasonable asylum claims. (Another 40 or so will be sent home).

Italy wants migrants to be vetted in North Africa and the genuine asylum seekers to be shared between EU counties. Similarly, Paris wants Britain to allow the vetting of would-be UK asylum seekers in France.

The UK government, fearful of the media reaction, refuses.  This is foolish. Britain should vet the migrants on the French side of the Channel so long as France accepts that anyone who crosses illegally can be sent back.

We need an outbreak of realism, honesty and cooperation between European countries –  Britain included. What hope of that?

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OPINION: The Franco-German ‘couple’ is crucial to the EU but the relationship is in trouble

As the French and German leaders celebrate 60 years of friendship, John Lichfield looks at a troubled past and an uncertain future for the EU's power couple.

OPINION: The Franco-German 'couple' is crucial to the EU but the relationship is in trouble

In 1870, as the Prussian army advanced on Paris, Ernest Renan, the French philosopher, observed sadly: “This misunderstanding can only get worse.”

That was one of the greatest prophetic understatements of history. The relationship between France and Germany was littered for the next 75 years with bullets, barbed-wire and graves.

For sixty years now, the two countries have officially been  friends – or more than friends. They have been diplomatic “besties”. They have been the indispensable “couple” at the heart of the European Union. They have been the “motor” which drove the creation of the EU and its most ambitious policies, from the single currency to borderless freedom of movement.

 Last Sunday President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz and their entire governments met in Paris to commemorate the signing of the Elysée Treaty which officially ended Franco-German enmity on January 22nd 1963.

Macron spoke grandiloquently of the two countries as “two souls in one body”. Scholz said, more prosaically, that France and Germany were a “motor” whose fuel was not “flattery” but a “determination to convert controversy into common action”.

The two governments proceeded to agree on …not very much.

Last weekend’s inter-governmental meeting replaced a summit at Fontainebleau in October which was cancelled at the last moment by Macron after Paris and Berlin failed to end a string of quarrels about energy, anti-inflation subsidies and arms procurement.

A couple of those quarrels have since been patched up. Several remain poisonously unresolved, including a multi-billion-euro German plan to shield its industry from high energy prices. France says that this will damage competition in the European single market.

Paris wants Berlin to agree an EU-wide anti-inflation policy, backed by EU loans. Berlin refuses.

There have been many Franco-German quarrels in the last 60 years. The present crop are, arguably, no worse than those which have gone before.

What has changed is that Germany and France are weaker – Germany economically, France diplomatically.

Germany’s economic model (dependant on Russian gas and Chinese cooperation) has been undermined by the Ukraine war.

The status of the France-Germany as Europe’s “first couple” has been challenged by the perception – right or wrong – that the two countries placed too much confidence in Vladimir Putin before the Ukraine invasion and that they have been too faint in their support for Kyiv since.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed, in one respect, to strengthen Macron’s argument that Europe should be able defend its own “sovereignty”, both militarily and  economically. It has also undermined it.

The importance of the US military commitment to Europe have been re-born. Eastern European and Baltic countries have asserted themselves. They have lost patience with France and Germany.

Franco-German agreements used to be essential to the running of the EU. They are now viewed, from the east, with some suspicion. As a result, a new generation of German diplomats and politicians – some not all – view the Paris-Berlin partnership as limiting or unnecessary.

The crisis has also coincided with the arrival of a new German Chancellor at the head of a quarrelsome Left-Green-centre coalition. Previously, French officials say, nothing could happen unless Angela Merkel agreed. Now, they say, nothing much happens even if Olaf Scholz is broadly on our side.

In a broader sense, the Franco-German post-war friendship has always been fragile.

The treaty signed at the Elysée Palace 60 years ago spoke of a “profound change in the relationship between the two peoples”.  But the “relationship” between the French and German peoples never matched the relationship between governments and political elites.

The old visceral enmity is largely gone but prejudices and generalisations still colour the view across the Rhine in both directions. The French see the Germans as disciplined, predictable, hard-working and humourless. The Germans see the French as charming, witty, superficial, arrogant, lazy and unreliable.

In the 19th century – and up to the middle of this century – the French and Germans fought and hated each other but remained fascinated by the culture of the other. Since the 1960s, the two governments have worked intimately together, but the two peoples have increasingly lost interest in each other.

Two anecdotes.

When my eldest son was 15, we hosted a party for his school friends and their German language exchanges. (The wooden floor in our Paris flat never recovered.)

The kids got on well but they spoke to each other only in English. The teaching of French in Germany and German and France has since all but collapsed.

Secondly, some years ago I caught a direct overnight train from Munich to Paris. By the time it crossed the Rhine, there were almost no German passengers. A new cast of French travellers boarded in Strasbourg. Instead of one train, it was two trains using the same carriages.

Two minor – but maybe not so minor – announcements were made after last weekend’s Franco-German summit. There will be 60,000 free rail tickets for young French and German people to visit one another’s countries this summer. The two governments have applied pressure on their rail companies to start a direct high-speed rail service between Paris and Berlin.

Both are excellent ideas. The glue of a broader, more popular friendship between the countries could be important in the 21st century.

The Franco-German partnership, post-the Ukraine conflict in a 27-country EU and counting, will never again be as powerful and central as it was in circa 1970-2000. It remains crucial all the same. It is difficult to imagine that the EU  can thrive, or even survive, if the “couple” divorces or the “motor” goes into reverse gear.

The misunderstandings will continue. Lets hope they do not get worse.