France will press the EU to negotiate an asylum and migration treaty with the UK in an attempt to deter people from making the dangerous Channel crossing.
The French government, which last week took up the six-month rotating presidency of the EU council of ministers, wants the whole bloc to act, despite warnings that other member states have no appetite for a migration treaty with Britain.
A senior French government official said the purpose of an EU-UK treaty would be to open up “a legal means of immigration with Great Britain, so people can legally go to Great Britain to seek asylum”.
The source added that “obviously that means reciprocity,” suggesting British authorities could send people denied asylum back to the European country in which they had arrived. “We would be prepared to consider this. The idea is to have a zero balance at the end of the day.”
Yet it remains unclear if the UK would agree to such proposals. During Brexit negotiations, the government was refused an asylum pact that would have allowed UK authorities to return people denied asylum to the EU, an arrangement that existed under Britain’s EU membership. The government, however, has long opposed allowing people to apply for asylum outside the UK, fearing it will trigger bogus claims.
The EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, told the Guardian last month that other member states had limited appetite for an asylum and migration treaty with the UK, citing the Brexit dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol. The French government source countered that it was “a very important European question, not just a French question,” noting that France, Belgium and the Netherlands were “struggling with a major problem” as thousands of people came to their countries seeking to reach the UK.
France and Britain had a spectacular diplomatic fallout last year, after 27 people drowned in the Channel trying to reach the UK. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, accused Boris Johnson of not being serious, after the UK prime minister published proposals on Twitter in time for newspaper deadlines, before the Élysée had received them.
The French government argues the UK has lax labour market laws that act as a magnet for irregular migrants. Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, has accused the UK of “an economic model, of sometimes, quasi-modern slavery”.
For its part, the British government blames the EU’s border-free travel zone: the home secretary, Priti Patel, said last year that “the real problem on illegal migration flows is the EU has no border protections whatsoever”.
France received more than three times as many applications for asylum as the UK in 2020, with 93,470 claims, second in the EU only to Germany, which received 121,955 applications. In the same year 29,456 people applied for asylum in the UK
The mooted treaty with the UK is part of a broader French agenda of tighter oversight of the free movement of people. Macron, who is expected to seek re-election this spring, wants to reform the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone and make progress on a long-stalled asylum law governing how to distribute refugees around the bloc.
France would like greater political oversight of the 26-country Schengen zone, with regular meetings of home affairs ministers, akin to the monthly gatherings of the 19 finance ministers of the eurozone. “Our plan is to put more politics into the governance of Schengen,” said the government source, who said the agreement had been drawn up in a different era.
The Schengen area, which now covers 400 million people, grew out of a 1985 accord between France, Germany and the Benelux countries.