In the aftermath of a disastrous migrant crossing attempt in the English Channel that caused 27 deaths on November 24, 2021, France and the U.K. are at odds over the prospect of a joint border-patrol operation in the Channel. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traded letters, released to the public through both formal media outlets and social media, expressing animosity towards each other’s calls for certain changes in migration policy between the borders of the two countries.
Migrant Crossing Disaster
On November 24, 2021, an inflatable dinghy filled with migrants attempting to cross the English Channel to reach the U.K. encountered disaster when their boat deflated, killing 17 men, seven women, and three teenagers. The deaths constitute one of the deadliest incidents in the busy shipping lane, which also has some of the easiest maritime crossing points between the British Isles and mainland Europe.
In the aftermath of the disaster, reactions from governments, nonprofits, and world leaders include a mix of anger, sorrow, consternation, and frustration at the lack of a solution to the ongoing issue of post-Brexit border controls. In particular, the U.K. and France, the two countries on either side of the Channel, have reached a political impasse over how to respond, with butting heads only augmenting political discord between the two countries.
Reactions and Rising Tensions
Following the accident, British and French officials traded jabs over responsibility and changes to policy going forward. Johnson blamed the French for their failure to prevent the crossing, which prompted a response from French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin accusing the U.K. of “bad immigration management.” Meanwhile, Macron stressed that France is merely a transitory country for many migrants, many of whom walk the length of Europe to attempt to cross into the U.K. through the Channel; A spokesperson for the British government, however, claimed that improving safety along asylum-seeking migration routes leading to France would only incentivize more migrants to make the dangerous journey.
In post-Brexit relations, British Conservatives have struggled with migration because the new relations between the U.K. and the mainland do not include provisions that permit British authorities to deport migrants to the first E.U. member state they entered, a policy previously enacted and enforced under E.U. membership.
To complicate matters further, Johnson released on Twitter a letter he had sent to Macron, addressed as “Dear Emmanuel” in the text, urging France to accept a joint border-patrol system and to approve the deportation of migrants from the U.K. back to France. In response, Macron canceled the attendance of British Home Secretary Priti Patel at a meeting over migration policy with officials from Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, and the European Commission. French Prime Minister Jean Castex released a response letter of his own contesting the U.K.’s propositions as a violation of sovereignty, while Macron urged the U.K. to “get serious.”
The discord over migration further dents an already-strained relationship, with migration becoming only the latest front in diplomatic tensions between the two countries. In recent months, France-U.K. relations have also been strained by developments such as the unveiling of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between the British, American, and Australian governments that angered France by canceling a Franco-Australian submarine deal. In other facets of post-Brexit negotiations, other maritime disagreements between the two countries include a row over fishing licenses that boiled into a barricade on the French end of the Eurotunnel Shuttle near Coquelles.
Other migrants on the French side of the Channel remain steadfast in their desire to reach the U.K.; Apparently unswayed by the prospect of danger and even death, interviewees expressed to Reuters that neither increased border patrol and surveillance nor the failure of others would hinder them in their efforts. For many, the U.K. represents a dream that they are willing to make tremendous sacrifices to realize, creating an issue for Conservatives who see them as unwelcome.
Regardless of the bluster coming from both sides of the English Channel, the deadlock on cohesive policy over migration through the Channel has distinct humanitarian and political ramifications: In addition to enabling and causing significant human suffering, the inability of both governments to enact decisions sends — even as much as the Tories would hate to admit it — a message of opportunity to migrants who will have an easier time crossing under uncoordinated border enforcement.
Another spat over post-Brexit regulations is, once again, affecting transnational issues: Unless the U.K. and France can figure out a cohesive policy that respects national sovereignty while hammering out terms both sides can support, migrants will continue to cross in unsafe conditions regardless of what world leaders say. In addition, the bluster over migration policy has the potential to spill over into other international enforcement cooperation areas.