French minister criticises ‘blackmail’ and ‘posturing’ from UK over migrant crossings

Intervention comes as Priti Patel examines using ‘pushback’ tactics in Channel

British home secretary Priti Patel: met with French interior minister Gérald Darmanin on Wednesday. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

British home secretary Priti Patel: met with French interior minister Gérald Darmanin on Wednesday. Photograph: Ian West/PA Wire

 

The French interior minister has hit back at his UK counterpart Priti Patel and her latest proposals for curbing Channel crossings by migrants heading to England in small boats, suggesting comments by Ms Patel were “blackmail”.

Gérald Darmanin wrote in a tweet on Thursday: “France will not accept any practice that is contrary to the law of the sea, nor any financial blackmail.

“Great Britain must stick to its commitments, as I’ve said clearly to my counterpart @pritipatel . . . The friendship between our two countries merits better than posturing which harms the co-operation between our [security] services.”

Ms Patel is exploring plans to use “pushback” tactics to turn away migrant boats attempting to enter the UK via the English Channel, according to reports on Thursday. The UK home secretary has also threatened to withhold funds for France agreed in July to beef up French coastal patrols unless more action is taken.

Under the UK proposals being discussed, Border Force officials could in some circumstances redirect migrants’ boats travelling across the Channel back to French waters – a process described in international law as “refoulement”.

The Home Office said it did not routinely comment on operational activity. But an official made it clear the department continued to evaluate new options to prevent crossings.

“Without getting into operational matters, as part of our ongoing response, we will continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options to find ways of stopping small boats making this dangerous and unnecessary journey,” the prime minister’s office said on Thursday.

A reduction in the numbers of people arriving in the UK in small boats has been a political priority for the home secretary. There have been about 13,500 arrivals in the UK via small boats so far this year – considerably higher than the 8,420 total for the whole of 2020.

Scepticism

Some have voiced scepticism at the latest plans. Lucy Moreton, professional officer of the ISU union, which represents Border Force officers, told the BBC’s Today programme that it was unlikely that authority to turn vessels around would ever be used because of the dangers involved and the lack of French co-operation.

“In practical terms, if this happened even once I’d be surprised,” she said. Ms Moreton pointed out that, under international maritime law, UK officials would need a French boat to receive any boat turned around.

Meanwhile, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, described the plan as “dangerous”, adding that it would put lives at risk.

“The home secretary has failed to tackle the vile criminal gangs who are profiting from people smuggling and this should be her focus, along with securing an effective deal with France and safe and legal routes,” he said.

After Ms Patel met Mr Darmanin on Wednesday, the Home Office said: “The home secretary made clear that delivering results and stopping crossings were an absolute priority for the British people, and that tackling the scourge of illegal migration and organised criminal networks is a joint challenge that neither country can tackle alone.”

In a letter released by the French after the meeting with Ms Patel but dated September 6th, Mr Darmanin outlined his concerns with a series of initiatives proposed by the UK government aimed at combating cross-Channel clandestine migration.

Mr Darmanin criticised suggestions that the UK might try to push back migrant boats; rejected proposals for a joint Franco-British command centre to deal with the issue; described plans for a joint intelligence unit on smuggling gangs as “premature”, and pushed back on the possibility of a bilateral deal on migrant returns.

Setback

The letter marked a setback for Ms Patel’s efforts to press France into taking new action to prevent clandestine crossings, after several reports on Tuesday indicated she would use the Wednesday meeting with Mr Darmanin to threaten to withhold £54 million (€63 million) that the UK agreed to pay France to step up its patrols of its coast.

Mr Darmanin is close to president Emmanuel Macron and has been at the forefront of policies to crack down on Islamists and illegal immigration into France.

Despite good relations between London and Paris on matters such as defence – last year the two countries declared a 10,000-strong joint military expeditionary force fully operational – ties have been strained in the aftermath of Brexit over border controls and the status of Northern Ireland.

It was estimated that more than 1,000 people crossed the English Channel in small boats on Monday, a record for the recent spike in small-boat migration there. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021