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26 November 2021

Frosty French and British relations are at best childish, at worst deadly

While ministers grandstand, desperate people are preparing to make the dangerous journey across the sea

By Megan Gibson

In times of crisis, diplomacy matters. However, the foundation of a solid diplomatic relationship must be laid long before disaster strikes.

After 27 people drowned as they attempted to cross the English Channel on 24 November — believed to be the biggest single loss of life in the Channel in recent years — politicians in both the UK and France have proven that rule. As Tim Ross reported, relations between Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson have been toxic for months now as Brexit has sparked battles over fishing rights and trade rules. And the situation is only getting worse.

Video by Phil Clarke-Hill

On 25 November, Johnson sent a letter to Macron proposing how to tackle the crisis, suggesting, notably, an agreement to ensure that anyone landing on UK shores was promptly returned to France. Johnson also published the letter on social media. The letter — or, perhaps, its appearance on Twitter — prompted Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, to disinvite the UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, from a meeting with ministers from Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium and the European Commission in Calais, which is due to be held on Sunday 28 November.

It’s positive that the EU is taking steps to address the problem of irregular migration (though, as a bloc, it’s had its own struggles with forming a coherent strategy). Yet diplomacy isn’t about playing nice with your friends and allies. Even if relations are frosty, the UK needs to be at the table in order to effectively tackle the problem.  

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Each side is clearly playing to a domestic audience: immigration continues to be a polarising subject in the UK, as Emma Haslett’s dispatch shows, while France is preparing for elections in April. But the squabbling is only exacerbating a growing crisis. More than 23,000 people have crossed the Channel to the UK by boat this year so far. That’s a dramatic jump from the 8,400 who made the journey in 2020. A plan — one that includes the UK — is urgently needed in order to prevent more tragedies. But that can’t happen when both sides are more intent on scoring political points rather than tackling the problem.

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Because while ministers grandstand, desperate people on France’s beaches are still preparing to make the dangerous journey. Ido, as our Europe correspondent, is reporting from the ground in Calais — he told me he spoke with a 19-year-old from Pakistan this morning whose family was ready to pay £2,500 to smugglers to get him across the Channel. The teenager was undeterred by the danger the journey posed even after this week’s tragedy. Indeed, he told Ido that he wouldn’t settle for anything but England.

[See also: Why the language we use to talk about the refugee crisis matters]