UK chooses Twitter diplomacy amid Channel migrant crisis
The death last week of at least 27 migrants while attempting to cross the English Channel between France and the UK is not likely to deter many others from making the perilous journey across the busiest shipping lane in the world.
More than 25,000 people have managed to reach British shores this year, despite repeated promises by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government that it would amend the laws and take practical steps to make the journey unviable.
The increasing numbers of migrant arrivals is a toxic issue for the Conservative government. One of the key arguments of those, like Johnson, who supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum was that leaving the EU would allow the UK to “take back control” of its borders. On every possible occasion, Johnson and his ministers repeat the promise that they will “stop the boats” or, as Home Secretary Priti Patel has often stated, that the government will take steps to ensure such crossings are “an infrequent phenomenon.”
Seeing all the problems that have piled up in the post-Brexit UK, one begins to wonder whether the British government has really “taken back control” from the EU, or has in fact ceded it in a shambolic, ill-thought-out way.
Nearly a year has passed since the UK-EU divorce treaty officially came into effect and Britain has been lurching from one crisis to another. What they all have in common is Brexit and the lack of any proper mechanisms or preparations to remedy the problems it has caused to the health sector, the availability of truck drivers, supply chains, the fishing industry and, of course, the quarrels with neighbors about migration issues.
Above all, it seems to me that Johnson is not interested in finding any solutions to the many problems the country is facing. The migrant crisis is a case in point: Johnson is trying to tweet his way out of it, because he knows that it is a result of his supposedly “oven-ready” Brexit deal, which was anything but. It fell short of having proper agreements and treaties in place to replace the EU ones governing the arrival and repatriation of migrants who enter the country illegally.
Johnson’s decision to tweet the contents of a controversial letter he sent to French President Emmanuel Macron is behavior straight out of this government’s playbook and reveals that the British premier is more interested in antagonizing the French than sitting down and working with them to prevent more deaths among people trying to reach British shores on precarious vessels.
If anything, Johnson should be as keen as politicians in normal times might be not only to sit down with the French, but also the Germans, Poles, Greeks and Italians, to find ways to deal with the few thousand migrants that are arriving on UK shores, as well as a wider solution that addresses a number of issues.
Firstly, to stop the weaponization of migrants, as we have witnessed recently on the border between Poland and Belarus, in the Aegean between Greece and Turkey, and in the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy.
Secondly, the need to agree a Europe-wide policy that provides a legal path to asylum for the desperate and dispossessed who are fleeing conflict and instability, but which also closes the gaps exploited by criminals and people smugglers. They use loopholes and disagreements between nations to help thousands of people slip through the net. Most of these people are genuine asylum seekers, but among them are economic migrants who, in some cases, could represent security challenges to their new host nations.
Thirdly, the post-Brexit UK has failed to agree a replacement for the EU’s Dublin III Regulation, which determines which member state is responsible for examining an application for asylum and manages the repatriation and distribution of migrants within the EU.
This agreement, of which the UK is no longer a part, dictates that some migrants can be sent back to another EU country they are known to have entered prior to arriving at their final destination. With no similar replacement agreement in place since leaving the EU, the UK no longer has a mechanism for sending migrants who cross the Channel back to France.
Many in the UK have written off the latest spat between Johnson and Paris as mere political theater. But there are also those who believe that the UK government was unwise to write a letter that appears provocative, and perhaps even designed to infuriate Macron, and then release it publicly on Twitter. Some argue that Brexit cannot change geography and so the UK needs to find a way to work with all its neighbors.
France accuses Johnson and his government of “politicizing” the crisis for “domestic gains.” The UK accuses Macron of “playing politics with people’s lives.” Both sides seem unable to see that this is not only a Calais-Dover issue, but a small part of a global refugee crisis in which international diplomacy, the UN and world powers are unable, or simply unwilling, to extinguish the many intrastate conflicts that are forcing the biggest chunk of refugees to leave their homes in the first place.
Asylum applications in the UK have reached their highest level since 2004. Official figures reveal that, as of September, nearly 38,000 applications had been made this year, which represents an 18 percent increase on the previous year. The figure is substantially lower than in France, which received 31,000 applications in the third quarter of this year alone, according to the Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.
The continuing bickering between Paris and London, despite last week’s tragedy, proves that migration remains a political hot potato for both. Macron has a critical campaign looming in the run-up to the presidential election in the spring. Meanwhile, Johnson’s failure to halt the migrants in their vulnerable little boats is adding to his many other failures on the domestic and world stages.
The continuing bickering between Paris and London, despite last week’s tragedy, proves that migration remains a political hot potato for both.
Neither seem to be ready to reach a compromise. Johnson clearly has more to lose, as migrants from various countries have been using France as a conduit. The truth is that, despite all the rhetoric about stopping the migrant flow that played such a major role in the “Leave” campaign during the 2016 referendum, the pre-Brexit UK’s cooperation with the rest of the EU played a key role in policing Britain’s borders and offered a (admittedly less than perfect) mechanism for the return of asylum seekers whose applications were rejected.
Attempting to tweet his way to a solution will not help Johnson, nor will blaming the French, the people smugglers or the Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians. Talking to European neighbors as partners, without pointing the finger of blame, would be a positive first step, but this might be a tall ask of a man who holds on tightly to his populist political playbook, which many here call playground politics.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.