France to offer Johnson EU deal on migrants

File photo.French Prime Minister Jean Castex (R) delivers a speech, next to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (L), during a meeting on the theme of security, at the Interior ministry in Paris, France, 01 February 2021. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex is preparing to write to British counterpart Boris Johnson with proposals for a new post-Brexit deal on migration with the EU after the disaster in the Channel last week that left 27 migrants dead, a minister said Monday (29 November).

Castex will write to Johnson on Tuesday, less than a week after a letter penned by the British premier to President Emmanuel Macron and immediately posted on Twitter angered France, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said.

Furious Macron scraps UK migrant talks after 'unacceptable' letter

France on Friday (26 November) scrapped planned talks with the UK about migrant crossings after an “unacceptable” letter from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pushing relations to new lows after 27 people died in the Channel.

Darmanin told reporters that France was prepared to resume discussions with the UK on the issue — after pointedly disinviting Home Secretary Priti Patel from a meeting of European ministers at the weekend — but only once the “double talk” stopped in London.

He called for a “balanced” accord that would offer “real solutions” for dealing with highly organised trafficking networks often spread across France, Belgium, Germany and other countries. Darmanin insisted it could not be with France alone but all of the EU.

“We do not want a unilateral agreement,” he said after a meeting chaired by President Emmanuel Macron.

“An agreement would set the framework for cooperation between Britain and bordering countries on immigration issues that were not negotiated at the time of Brexit,” he said.

“Mr Prime Minister Jean Castex will write tomorrow to the British prime minister to outline the French demands in more detail and in full and our point of view,” he said, adding that the letter would be received by the British side on Tuesday afternoon.

“We can then start — if the British want — an open discussion and we can meet this week,” Darmanin said.

‘Cannot accept’

French officials complain the public statements from British officials — such as a proposal in Johnson’s letter to Macron that Britain take back migrants — were at odds with a more constructive line taken in private talks.

Macron was particularly aghast that Johnson had published the entire text of his letter on Twitter.

The spat has added to a litany of post-Brexit rows between the two sides, which also include a dispute on fishing rights in the Channel which has threatened to spill over into a full-blown trade war.

The deal set to be proposed by France could include ways to ensure that unaccompanied minors can safely reach Britain to rejoin family, instead of putting themselves at the mercy of traffickers, Darmanin said.

But he rejected proposals that would see Britain unilaterally force migrant boats back to France, saying it was against international maritime law and would put people’s lives in danger.

“We cannot accept this practice,” he said.

He also rejected calls to have French police intercept migrant boats already in the water, saying it was a dangerous method that migrants would resist in any case.

He reiterated calls for Britain to implement a legal route for migrants to seek asylum, claiming that it would discourage people from trying to make the Channel crossing in the first place.

‘Highly structured’

France has already secured the deployment of a surveillance plane from the EU’s Frontex border agency to patrol France’s northern coast, and Darmanin said two French helicopters would be deployed as well to try to spot migrant launches before they reach sea.

Surveillance plane to be deployed over Channel to monitor migrants

The EU’s border agency is to deploy a plane 24-hours-a-day over the Channel coast to monitor migrant crossings, France announced Sunday (28 November) after pushing its European partners for help in cracking down on people-smuggling.

Drones with thermal imaging tools will also be used, though for now drones with facial recognition capabilities cannot be used systematically without police warrants, he said. Darmanin also said that the number of police in a special department dealing with illegal migration would be doubled.

Little information has been released about the identity of the victims who drowned in Wednesday’s disaster, although several are thought to have been from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Darmanin said an Iraqi man who was rescued had begun his journey in Syria, travelling to Belarus and then through Poland and Germany to northern France.

He told investigators he paid €8,700 to reach France, where Channel crossings typically cost an additional €2,500 to €3,000. “These are highly structured and international networks that we consider organised crime,” he said.

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