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26 November 2021

Priti Patel’s French snub suits everyone – except the people caught in the middle

Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron’s row may solve the political problem – but not the human one.

By Stephen Bush

The French government has uninvited Priti Patel from a meeting of interior ministers in protest at an open letter from Boris Johnson to Emmanuel Macron.

The row between the two states is essentially about allocating blame for the deaths of at least 31 people and the ongoing situation in the Channel: Johnson’s letter essentially argues that the growing number of Channel crossings – 26,000 people are believed to have arrived via some kind of small boat or rubber dinghy this year – is a problem that begins in France. Most of his proposed solutions involve a greater level of enforcement on French beaches and more marine patrols in French waters. 

The French government, in contrast, is arguing the reverse: that the United Kingdom needs to have a greater in-person presence in France to process immigration and asylum claims there. The supposed substance of the row – the French government complaining about the British government grandstanding by communicating in public via open letter and on Twitter, by communicating in public via a press conference, a distinction without a distance – is a distraction from the actual argument the two countries are having, which is about shifting blame to the other country. 

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How much is Brexit the cause of the problem? It is the cause of the political problem, because Brexit means that the frontiers of the European Union are now the sea border between the United Kingdom and France. 2021 is the year of the deadliest day on the Channel since the International Organisation for Migration began recording statistics: it is also the least deadly year in the Mediterranean Sea in that time, and some of that is simply because a crisis that used to occur on the United Kingdom’s effective border at the edge of the European Economic Area now takes place on the United Kingdom’s actual border at Dover. 

Video by Phil Clarke-Hill

As far as fixing the political problem, either a wide-ranging agreement with France (the implicit logic of the government’s new borders bill is that the British government will be able to set up plenty of third-party deals with other countries on migration) or a stand-off may help tackle the problem. 

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As one French opposition politician observed to me recently, rows between France and the United Kingdom both appeal to “the same man”: a voter aged 55 and over, whose highest academic qualification is an O-Level or a baccalauréat. In the United Kingdom they are highly likely to have voted to leave the European Union: in both countries they are more authoritarian than the national average. They are particularly exercised by the Channel crossings row if they live in a town on the border, whether that town is in Pas-de-Calais or Kent. They are integral to Boris Johnson’s majority, and important, too, to Emmanuel Macron’s path to the second round of the French presidential election.  And from a crude electoral perspective, both Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson probably do make some gains by looking to be “standing up” to the “shrill French/thick Brexit Brits”. 

But as far as the actual human problem of the Channel crossings is concerned, neither confrontation nor greater enforcement will tackle that. They might simply move the death toll back to the Mediterranean, where it is not politically painful for the British government. They might not even achieve that. But the Channel crossings challenge is ultimately one for all developed and advanced economies to tackle, and the solution to the problem remains a global one.

[See also: Frosty French and British relations are at best childish, at worst deadly]