Opinion: Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron are locked in a post-Brexit duel

The International Organization for Migration said the tragedy marked the single biggest known loss of life on the busy waterway since it began collecting data in 2014. And an editorial cartoon in The Times of London depicted migrants packed into a boat in the shape of a coffin, vividly underscoring the risks people take in seeking a better life.
The tragedy set off yet another spat between the UK and France, two countries whose relations have become increasingly frayed in the aftermath of Brexit. On Thursday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson published a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron, proposing, among other things, an agreement to “allow all illegal migrants who cross the Channel to be returned” — a suggestion the French have previously rejected.
A French government spokesman said the letter was “both poor in content and completely inappropriate in its form,” while France’s interior minister announced Britain’s home secretary was no longer invited to a meeting in Calais on Sunday to discuss how to stop the crossings and trafficking syndicates.
Britain and France escalate war of words after dozens drown in Channel tragedy
In response to growing pressure to make a more forceful intervention, France said that it would improve surveillance of its northern shores. However, SKY News broadcast video on Thursday apparently showing French police looking on as a group of people prepared to enter the channel’s dangerous waters.

Playing politics

Sadly, the political situation on both sides of the channel may make for front-page headlines but creates little space for impactful problem-solving.

For Johnson, a former journalist who is a master at political spin, the optics of standing up to the French and pushing back against asylum-seekers could be beneficial for a government that campaigned on taking back control and sovereignty from the European Union. But it might be difficult to make a convincing case that Brexit improved matters of sovereignty and border control when there have been far more channel crossings in 2021 so far compared to the same period in the last two years.
Meanwhile, the anti-immigration rhetoric of Brexit campaigners like Nigel Farage ignores data which indicate a desperate need for increased migration in the UK, with labor shortages across several sectors and more than a million job vacancies between July and September — the highest levels since 2001.
And for Macron, who faces re-election next year, pushing back against an ally that voluntarily left the EU and helped upend France’s submarine deal with Australia creates useful fodder for political gain — especially during an ongoing dispute over French fishing licenses. He cannot be seen as the weak underdog here, with right-wing presidential candidate Eric Zemmour already seizing on the issue to use it against Macron.
French fishermen threaten to block Channel Tunnel, ports in protest over fishing licenses

“The bilateral tensions you see are more or less the aftermath of Brexit,” French political commentator Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet told me. “And the refugees are the main victims.”

Prior to Brexit, the UK could send migrants to other countries under the Dublin Regulation that asserted a person’s asylum claim would be transferred to the first EU member state he or she entered.

Now that the UK has left the EU, however, the regulation no longer applies. Both Johnson and Macron now want to look like they came out on top after Brexit, all while avoiding being brought down by the third rail issue of immigration at home.

Crushing the smugglers

Even at the best of times, the French and British response appears to be little more than an amateur cat-and-mouse game with the human traffickers.

Canadian investigative journalist Victor Malarek, who has written extensively about global human trafficking, said France and the UK need to not only bury their differences but also adopt more creative tactics like going undercover or infiltrating gangs to crush the smuggling syndicates, which are growing more sophisticated.

Malarek said more resources should be allocated to fight smuggling. “And when you catch smugglers you have to bring the hammer down on them,” he told me, adding that the traffickers involved in the crossing on Wednesday should be held accountable for the 27 migrants who died.

On the positive side, the crisis has generated new discussion on how to address the so-called push factors that motivate people to flee desperate conditions. More frequent and intense climate events and conflicts will only place more people in the smugglers’ dangerous networks.

“The reality is that desperate people will do desperate things,” Malarek said.

France and the UK are allies and they must resolve this complex crisis in a way that is mutually acceptable and respects international humanitarian law and refugee accords. “The main problem is neither the British nor the French are willing to concede anything,” Moreau-Chevrolet told me. A major risk for Johnson would be if the French release thousands of refugees towards UK waters, as the Cubans did in the 1980s and as Belarus is doing now, Moreau-Chevrolet said.
With France already taking in more migrants a year than the UK, Johnson should offer more resources and more money than the $72 million it’s currently sending to help police the French coast if he wants to stem the flow of migration. Either way, the best option for both Johnson and Macron would be to work together instead of trading barbs across a stretch of water that is becoming a graveyard for too many of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Failing to do so could put Macron and Johnson in an unenviable position not dissimilar to what is playing out between Poland and Belarus, where the leaders of both countries are casting blame and trying to capitalize on the situation for what seems to be their own political gain, no matter the consequences.

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