Britain, chaos and Calais

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African refugees in Calais' 'Jungle' camp. October 2014. [Stefan de Vries/Flickr]

Sending a few sniffer dogs across the Channel to deal with what David Cameron called “swarms” of refugees cannot cope with the scale of the problem, writes Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British-born political scientist working as Director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance. This article is an English version of an op-ed that appeared in the Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung, on 4 August, 2015.

The last territory England lost in France was Calais in the sixteenth century. That strip of water between it and the white cliffs of Dover immortalised by the singer Vera Lynn in the Second World War, has shaped England’s destiny. But the song was built on a myth: there were never any bluebirds in England and the “peace ever after” referred to in the lyrics failed to materialise.

Whilst the debate on Europe in Britain has so far concentrated on the numbers of EU migrants in the country, it now switches to the illegal ones mostly from Africa, the Middle East or Asia which has little to do with EU membership. In the minds of irritated holiday-makers queueing up to flee the damp weather for the European sun, it could however bolster the popular adage that troubles originate in Calais. The French are seen as being deliberately unhelpful, only too keen to push the migrants on their way to those “white cliffs”. The Labour Party want the French to pay compensation to Brits who have lost business because imported goods cannot get through. But solidarity appears to be a flexible commodity.

The continuing prospect played out in the media of what Cameron called “swarms” of refugees clambering on lorries piled up to get across the Channel coupled with the Greek crisis does little to boost confidence in the European Union.

Apart from the general miserable image of politicians in the eyes of voters, there is a sense of helplessness and feeling that the leaders have no answers. Politics is not just about taking decisions and involving the people, but offering solutions.

The recent attempt to send a few sniffer dogs across the Channel cannot cope with the scale of the current problem. Barbed wire and a security guarded border now raise once more the spectre of physical division in Europe. Nigel Farage of the anti-EU UKIP wants the army brought in to deal with the “Calais chaos”. But more security, it is reckoned, will not deter those who have desperately risked their lives to get thus far, but instead lead to more deaths.

The Cameron government wants new measures, including forcing landlords to evict illegal migrants once in the country. Effective checks could mean the introduction of personal identity cards, something run of the mill on the continent. But the very idea makes many in Britain cringe. As Cameron himself admitted, this problem will persist throughout the summer at the very leas,  and the name Calais will remain something of a jinx for the British Isles.