France seeks EU help over migrants, snubs UK

Published November 29, 2021
Yvla Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs; Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europole; Gerald Darmanin, French Minister of Interior; Stephan Mayer, German Minister of Interior and Annelies Verlinden, Belgian Minister of Interior pose on the sidelines of their meeting to discuss ways of preventing migrants crossing the Channel by boat at Calais City Hall on Sunday. — AFP
Yvla Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs; Catherine De Bolle, Executive Director of Europole; Gerald Darmanin, French Minister of Interior; Stephan Mayer, German Minister of Interior and Annelies Verlinden, Belgian Minister of Interior pose on the sidelines of their meeting to discuss ways of preventing migrants crossing the Channel by boat at Calais City Hall on Sunday. — AFP

CALAIS: France sought help from its European neighbours on Sunday to crack down on Channel people-smuggling gangs, with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin saying he could “not accept” any more deaths after an unprecedented accident claimed 27 lives.

Ministers responsible for immigration from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium convened in the northern French port of Calais on Sunday afternoon, but without Britain which was excluded after a row last week.

“The biggest point for this meeting is the fight against people-smugglers who take advantage of our borders and countries,” Darmanin said at the start of the event, adding that “migratory pressures continue and are constantly increasing”.

“These deaths are too many,” he said of the accident which saw 27 people drown on Wednesday after their inflatable dinghy began losing aircrossing the English Channel in wintry temperatures. “We cannot accept that any more people die.”

The main focus was to have been scheduled talks between Darmanin and British counterpart Priti Patel after both countries vowed to cooperate to tackle a surge in crossings this year which has seen around 26,000 people set off from France to England.

But within 48 hours of Wednesday’s disaster, French President Emmanuel Macron had accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being “not serious”.

Paris was irked by Johnson’s initial reaction, which was seen as deflecting blame onto France, and then by his decision to write a letter to Macron which he published in full on his Twitter account before the French leader had received it.

Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s talks was withdrawn over the breach of diplomatic protocol, with an aide to Darmanin calling Johnson’s letter “unacceptable”.

Britain’s departure from the European Union has caused years of ill-will between Paris and London, with relations seen as at their lowest point in at least two decades. Under-fire Patel called her absence “unfortunate” but said she would be holding “urgent talks” with European counterparts this week.

She spoke on Sunday morning with Dutch Immigration Minister Ankie Broekers-Knol, with a statement from the Home Office saying “the tragic incidents of last week demonstrate the need for European partners to work together”.

Without the participation of Britain — the intended destination country for the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers massed in northern France — there are limits to what can be achieved at Sunday’s meeting in Calais.

The EU’s home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, as well as the directors of the border force Frontex and police agency Europol also attended.

People-smuggling gangs are known to use Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as bases to organise their operations. Many migrants are believed to travel to launch sites in northern France from Belgium, while inflatables and life jackets can be bought in other countries such as the Netherlands and Germany without raising suspicion.

One of the five men arrested in connection with Wednesday’s tragedy was driving a car with German registration, according to French officials.

While France and Britain agree on the need to tackle people-smugglers more effectively, they remain at odds over how to prevent people taking to the water.

In his public letter to Macron, Johnson again pressed for British police and border agents to patrol alongside their French counterparts on the coast of northern France — something rejected by Paris in the past as an infringement on sovereignty.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2021

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