French President Calls For a “Dialogue of Truth” With UK

President Macron in Dialogue with Prime Minister Johnson
President Macron in Dialogue with Prime Minister Johnson

Tragedy of Drowning in the English Channel

President Macron was on tour in Northern France on 2 February. He was visiting the former mining town, Lens, near the Belgian border. He gave an exclusive interview to the local newspaper, La Voix du Nord, during which he was asked for his views on the tragedy of refugees drowning in the Channel. He asked for a ’dialogue of truth’.

There have also been many opinions on this in the Kent local press. One of the recent letter-writers to the Kent Messenger opined that the quick solution was to send all those arriving illegally by boat back to France immediately. That would soon stop this criminal trade, he advised. So the purpose of this article is to see how this “solution” from Kent would, or would not, fit with President Macron’s views.

“We must re-engage in a dialogue of truth with the British, in conjunction with the EU. Because it is the fruit of immigration across the borders of Europe. The British continue to have a system from the 1980s that manages economic immigration with hypocrisy: there is no legal route to immigration and they accept underpaid illegal immigration. The British must articulate needs in terms of economy and reopen a path to legal asylum. We will increase the pressure.”

Emmanuel Macron

VdN– At the cost of sanctions?

“But sanctions, what does that mean? No longer hold the crossing points, let the boats leave at the risk of seeing people perish? We are hostages to an absurd and inhuman situation. The pressure must come from Europe as part of a broader agenda. However, we have never fully engaged with this. I notice that in Great Britain, several parliamentarians have had the courage to put the subject on the table. The moral responsibility for those who perish at sea does not lie with France, but with this British refusal to respond.”

So he is accusing the British government of “managing economic immigration with hypocrisy … they accept underpaid illegal immigration”.  What exactly is he referring to? Is he saying that most of the people in the refugee camps along the coast of Northern France are basically economic migrants?

I must admit that when I look at the photos of the young people disembarking from the rescue boats at Dover, I think how useful they could be in the jobs shortage – any future truck drivers there? Or care-workers? But the legal position is (or was, see below) that asylum-seekers are not allowed to work while their status is being decided. They have to subsist on the money granted by the UK government, which can be as little as £5.66 per day according to the Refugee Council.

While Macron claims there is no legal route to immigration into UK, one wonders what he is referring to. The Home Office has published lists of shortages of skilled workers. This is an arduous legal route for those who qualify, usually with the aid of a company or agency keen to employ them. 

It is not likely that refugees from the most troubled countries can take this route, although it is to be noted that there are some 1200 medically qualified refugees already in the UK. The Home Office might respond to Macron’s comment that “UK needs to articulate the needs of the economy” by pointing to this  list of shortage occupations. 

Several UK sectors, however, are  in the news for complaining that their shortage of workers (hauliers, care-workers, hospitality) do not feature on this UK list. The Home Office declared only last month that, because of such needs, asylum-seekers might be allowed to take up such jobs. So it is unlikely that the refugees in Northern France are really only economic migrants seeking to fill those very UK jobs yet. But more of them might..

Macron is Also Aware that France Needs Immigrants for These Types of Job

“On the other hand, we are collectively hypocritical: sectors need immigration. Our desire is first to push job seekers and RSA beneficiaries towards these and to have an incentive policy, via the reforms of apprenticeship and unemployment insurance. But I am obliged to note that even the unions encourage me to welcome foreigners for the agri-food, industrial, construction or catering sectors. You have to organise it. We need a debate in the National Assembly.”

Emmanuel Macron

In election year, he has to take a balanced view. Especially in Northern France where the right wing is strong, it could be a vote-loser to be too pro-immigration, but he is bravely putting forward the facts, as indeed they also need to be debated in the UK too. 

Stop Them Coming

“The second project is to hold our external borders better. We Europeans must organise ourselves better. I say it with even more force than I hear all the demagogic discussions. I remind you that France has never had so many security forces to guard its national borders, including the army after the Nice attack in the autumn of 2020, and we have obtained from Europeans the sustainability of our control systems. There are no weaknesses. France firmly holds its borders.”

“But the heart of the problem is European. … Borders, like currency, are a common treasure … Our area of ​​free movement is now threatened if we do not know how to hold our external borders and monitor who enters them… we must reinvest resources at our common borders. Frontex staff will be increased to 10,000 (by 2027)… we must succeed in creating a common registration procedure for foreigners entering the Schengen area, and harmonising, this will be the longest work, the right of asylum.” 

Emmanuel Macron

So one of the solutions to curb the numbers arriving in  northern France aiming to cross the Channel is to strengthen EU frontiers. This needs more money and personnel, which has to be agreed by the EU member states- no longer including the UK. 

Sharing the Refugees

“Another element, The Dublin system no longer works.”

Emmanuel Macron

This “Dublin system” is not an international law, but some UK commentators claim refugees are “criminal” because they did not stop in the first safe country. The Dublin system was an EU Agreement that refugees should be accepted in the first safe country, but on the understanding that they would not be a burden on these border countries, like Greece, because they would then be resettled in other EU countries. This never really worked because some EU countries, mostly in the east, refused to participate.

A system of countries agreeing to quotas of refugees is one which gives benefits both to the receiving countries and to the refugee families. When Germany, under Merkel, accepted almost 1m Syrians in 2015, these were shared out across the German Länder. Although only 35% if these are currently fully employed, there are some surprising figures such as that there are over 4 000 Syrian medical practitioners among them.

Other EU countries that accepted large numbers of Syrians include Sweden, Austrian,Greece, the Netherlands.  France accepted 23 000, and the UK settled 20 000 (distributed across willing towns in the UK, including some in Kent).

A similar quota has been worked out for Afghan refugees to the UK in 2021. Such refugee families are at the “top ticket” end of the refugee experience – whole families can come, on legitimate transport.  No need to risk lives on leaky boats. It is certainly kinder on women and children. As can be seen from the Dover disembarkees: it is mostly young men who risk the rigours of the overland journey to the French coast, the squalors of camping there, and the dangers of the sea-crossing. 

Can They be Sent Back?

The French President does not shy away from this difficult question:

“The last point to be addressed is the return mechanisms to the countries of origin. We are not effective. It will only work if we as Europeans manage to have a conversation that involves countries of both origin and transit. Discussions will be held at the African Union – European Union summit. And we must take care to adapt it to the policy of cooperation and visa. We need to have the same strategy at European level. Because if you reduce your number of visas, but your neighbours do not take the same approach, new queues form.” 

Emmanuel Macron

Here Macron is talking both as an inheritor of the strong traditions of French diplomacy, and also of French involvement in Francophone Africa.

“A conversation that involves countries of both origin and transit”

What does this mean? Does it mean paying some countries (Libya?, Mali?) to prevent the migrant flow towards the EU, much as the EU deal with Turkey was agreed to hold back the refugee surge from the Middle East? But how to do this in countries, like Libya, where the legitimate government is contested?  Money for refugees would often get converted into money for arms for one side or the other.

The ideal, of course, is to transform the countries the refugees come from into happy peaceful societies, but that is not likely to happen quickly even with money and goodwill.  The current UK government clearly does not support this line of development thinking as the UK aid budget has been severely cut. So no help there for South Sudan, the newest nation, which is still in a trauma of political contest that sends refugees scattering beyond its borders, some eventually to the French north coast.

What if the UK Were to Send Them All Back to France?

Suppose the UK Government did follow the advice of the KM letter-writer and start to negotiate with President Macron to send all those arriving “illegally” by boat back to France. Suppose the deal also included the UK setting up and paying for a processing centre there, similar to what has been opened at Manston, for the 7 day stay for first assessment.

Suppose the French always directed any refugees trying to camp out around the coast to that centre.  Would that then stop the risky cross-Channel crossings? Those accepted for asylum in the UK could then be booked into safe means of travel. It would be an attractive option especially for families. It would attract more … and more … from some countries:  the “pull factor” that Priti Patel refers to.

And then what about those refused? What would happen to them? Many of them come from unsafe countries, and they could not just be flown back there. The centre would gradually fill with those refused asylum, or trying to appeal first negative decisions. In fear of this, many unsure of their chances would still try to avoid going to such a centre. They would still try their chances with covert crossings.

So is it on balance worth trying to negotiate such a reception centre in northern France? Morally it certainly feels better to be spending money on housing refugees and getting through their asylum case-work more efficiently. Rather than on the macho outrageously dangerous proposal to turn back boats mid-Channel.

So how about giving a British-run refugee reception at Calais a try, President Macron and Priti Patel? 

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