Written by Mark Landler
Sometimes the feuds between Britain and France can seem trivial and more than a little irritable. But the latest wave of recriminations, following the tragic deaths of at least 27 migrants in a fragile inflatable boat off the French coast, puts the two countries at odds over one of the thorniest issues they face.
The growing number of migrants risking their lives to cross the Channel is both a humanitarian crisis and a complex challenge for law enforcement. Experts say he won’t be helped by the acrimonious back-and-forth between French and UK officials which led France on Friday to cancel an invitation to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel to attend a meeting of emergency on the crisis.
Rather than working together to curb these dangerous sea voyages, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Emmanuel Macron almost immediately fell into a familiar pattern: questioning each other’s motives, seeking political points and throwing blame on an intractable global problem that afflicts their two countries. .
The charges and counter-charges threatened to plunge Britain-France relations into an even deeper freeze, after a series of disputes over fishing rights, the breakdown of an underwater alliance and the future from Northern Ireland. Rather than being brought closer by Wednesday’s disaster, one of the deadliest in Channel history, the two neighbors were even further apart.
“It’s a different order of magnitude because it’s about human lives and because it’s politically explosive for both sides,” said Peter Ricketts, former British ambassador to France. “It’s a much bigger problem, and I don’t see how you can restore the relationship until you fix this problem.”
The problem, according to Ricketts and others, is that France, with a constant flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East and a long coastline to watch out for, will never be able to prevent every migrant from reaching Britain. The best the two can hope for is a greatly reduced flow, and even that would require a degree of cooperation that seems wishful thinking in today’s tense atmosphere.
Despite the anti-immigrant fervor stoked by Brexit, Britain continues to attract migrants because of its English language – which many are somewhat proficient in – and because it lacks national identity cards, this which facilitates the work of people without legal status.
The cross-Channel conflict has already shown signs of worsening. French fishermen briefly blocked the entry and exit of trucks from the Channel Tunnel on Friday and blocked ferries in the port of Calais to highlight a nagging dispute with Britain over fishing licenses.
The latest diplomatic eruption came after Johnson sent – and immediately posted on Twitter – a letter to Macron in which he blamed France for the crisis and proposed that she pledge to take back all asylum seekers who surrender in Great Britain, a suggestion that the French have already rejected several times.
Macron, who had discussed the crisis with Johnson earlier over the phone, reacted acidly. “You don’t communicate from leader to leader on these issues through tweets and letters that you make public,” he said.
“We are not whistleblowers, come on,” Macron said, visibly upset, at a press conference in Rome, where he was on an official visit.
Other French officials were even more withered. They said Johnson’s letter was not what he and Macron had discussed and suggested he was exploiting the crisis for domestic political gain. They categorically rejected the proposal that France take back asylum seekers from Britain.
Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesperson, said the letter was “both poor in content and completely inappropriate in form”.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin then announced that Patel was no longer invited to a meeting that France will hold in Calais on Sunday with the ministers responsible for immigration from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. and the European Commission.
Diplomats said it made no sense for Britain not to have a seat at the table since cross-Channel trafficking is at the heart of the problem. It was also a disheartening sign, they said, of the deterioration of relations between the two countries.
British officials said they hoped France would reconsider its decision. A government spokesperson said Johnson wrote the letter “in the spirit of partnership and cooperation” and published it in the interests of transparency.
But British diplomats said the letter seemed calculated to provoke the French and would further weaken a relationship between Johnson and Macron that was already marked by mutual mistrust.
Peter Westmacott, who predated Ricketts as British Ambassador to France, said: “The French believe that the British are not negotiating in good faith, that the EU has done a lot to meet British demands and that London is playing political games. They are not beyond being in politics themselves, but are unsure of how to react. “