The National - News

A lack of trust between Paris and London endangers lives

- THOMAS HARDING

There is a strong argument that the 27 migrants who drowned in the English Channel on Wednesday were victims of new European political realities as much as the perils of the sea.

If there are to be no more or at least fewer such tragedies, trust has to be rebuilt between London and Paris.

Since the 2016 EU referendum, a deep chill has taken hold in the relationsh­ip between Britain and the continent, even more so since the Brexit trade deal in January.

First it was the vaccine wars over Oxford-AstraZenec­a Covid19 drugs that Britain kept for itself. Then it was the enduring divide over the Northern Ireland protocol, followed by French humiliatio­n in the Aukus submarine pact between the US, Australia and the UK.

Relations with France are at their lowest ebb in decades, if not centuries. There have been petty squabbles over fishing licences, detentions off the Channel Islands and a Gallic shrugging of the shoulders on resolving the small boat crossings.

That posture may change in light of Wednesday’s tragedy. The British press ran grim stories with pictures showing French police looking on as smuggler boats full of migrants set forth into the chilly Channel.

But change needs to come from the top. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at least opened the communicat­ions channel in a call with French President Emmanuel Macron shortly after the drownings off Calais. The pair agreed to do “everything possible” to deter the smuggler gangs.

“France will not let the Channel become a graveyard,” said Mr Macron.

If anything tangible is to happen it will require a show of leadership and probably a summit between the two leaders. There does not appear to be an appetite for that yet. Mr Macron, who is looking towards presidenti­al elections in April next year, has little to gain from detente with Britain. Likewise, Mr Johnson’s largely Brexit electorate will not keenly embrace a French rapprochem­ent.

However, the pair agreed to work more closely and that might help.

This year 25,000 asylum seekers – most from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Somalia – have risked the 32-kilometre stretch of busy sea lanes from France to England. Even with winter closing in, the trips will probably continue.

So what can be done to prevent them?

The small boat crossings are a result of measures to stop lorry smuggling, particular­ly after the 2019 tragedy in which 39 Vietnamese were found suffocated in a freight vehicle in Essex.

The UK has been pressing France to allow British Border Force officers to carry out joint patrols along northern French beaches.

While Britain already pays £54 million ($71.8m) to France for about 200 French officers, their remit has massively expanded in the last year from 50km to 200km of coastline. The unspoken implicatio­n is also that British patrollers would have a greater motivation in stopping migrants than their French colleagues.

With a daily record of 1,185 migrants on the Kent coastline on 11 November, the French authoritie­s are clearly overwhelme­d.

Better co-ordination in preventing crossings and organising rescues would certainly result from an Anglo-French command centre in Calais, the closest crossing point.

The idea of providing “safe routes” to migrants, allowing them to travel to Britain without having to risk sea crossings, has been dismissed by Whitehall sources, suggesting it would encourage even more asylum seekers to flock to northern France.

The proposal for allowing refugees to make British asylum claims in France or neighbours such as Belgium and the Netherland­s has been similarly rejected.

Then there is the issue of money. France wants more to assist in what is mainly a British problem. London might accede, or base it conditiona­lly on sending British officers to France.

More financing would also help to clear the 15-month backlog of asylum seekers, allowing many more to be repatriate­d and deterring others.

If Wednesday’s victims’ lives are not to be entirely in vain, perhaps the tragedy could result in a better dialogue between the two countries that could help those attempting to flee oppression for a better life.

In the end, it is likely to be the weather that has the final say. A severe storm of 120 kilometre an hour winds is predicted to hit Britain on Friday.

Crashing waves are likely to bring a halt to both crossings and the inflammato­ry rhetoric. For now.

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