Keir Starmer vows to strike migrants return deal with EU

Tories accuse Labour of ‘surrending’ control of immigration to Brussels – as Starmer promises to put people-smuggling ‘on a par’ with terrorism

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Thursday 14 September 2023 16:19 BST
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Keir Starmer defends Brexit position after revealing plans for EU migrant deal

Sir Keir Starmer has revealed that a Labour government would aim to strike a post-Brexit returns agreement with the EU, as he vowed to put people-smuggling “on a par” with terrorism .

The Labour leader said was prepared to do a deal which would involve the UK taking a quota of legal asylum seekers who arrive in the bloc, in exchange for the ability to return people crossing the English Channel.

Sir Keir insisted that his focus was on ensuring that an anti-terrorism style crackdown could smash the gangs behind the “vile” trade – preventing people leaving in small boats from France in the first place.

But the Tories seized on the suggestion that he would be prepared to do a deal with Brussels on a migrant quota – accusing him of “surrendering” immigration policy to the EU.

Rishi Sunak claimed Labour’s returns deal plans could result in the UK accepting 100,000 migrants from the EU every year. And home secretary Suella Braverman said Labour would let the UK become a “dumping ground” for Europe’s migrants.

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In an interview with The Times, Sir Keir said he would also seek an EU-wide returns agreement for small boat migrants, which may involve a “quid pro quo” of accepting quotas of migrants from the bloc.

“That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe,” he said. But he would not be drawn on the number of legal asylum seekers he would be happy to take in under a deal.

He also insisted that seeking closer co-operation with the EU on the migrants crisis did not mean a weakening of his stance on Brexit. “There is no return to freedom of movement. We have left the EU,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Keir Starmer and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper at Europol in The Hague

Mr Sunak told broadcasters: “His plans today seem to amount to saying that we might one day accept 100,000 EU migrants every year – that doesn’t seem like a credible plan.”

“He wants to surrender control of our immigration to the EU and let them decide on the quotas,” said cabinet minister Steve Barclay. “The number that we would then have to take in return will be much higher.”

But Mr Starmer described the Tory response as “nonsense” and accsued the party of having “nothing sensible to say on the issue”. Sir Keir insisted that he was “taking control of a situation the government has totally lost control of”.

Mr Sunak and the Tories based the 100,000 claim on the basis that the UK could, in theory, accept a 12 per cent proportionate share of the almost one million asylum seekers who arrive in Europe each year. No 10 said the government was also open to a returns deal with the EU – but would not accept a quota of migrants in exchange.

Former home secretary David Blunkett told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme that a returns agreement with the EU, would be “a complicated sell”. But he added: “I think when we are in office we will have the challenges that the government today have but with practical, sensible policies rather than gesturing.”

Former Tory minister Rory Stewart said Labour’s new ideas on asylum “seem brave and principled”, adding: “It is logical, moral, good for Britain – and far better than the current government policy. Well done Keir.”

Sir Keir shared his plans for greater cooperation in data sharing between British and European security forces during his meeting with Europol chiefs at the organisations HQ in the Hague on Thursday.

Sir Keir said people-smuggling should be treated “on a par” with terrorism, as he vowed to deepen intelligence ties with the EU as part of a new post-Brexit security pact.

Keir Starmer expected to meet Macron in Paris next week

As part of its plans, Labour says it would work to reach a new agreement to share real-time intelligence similar to the Schengen Information System II – a database of terror suspects and immigration offenders which the UK had automatic access to before Brexit.

The party has also vowed to strengthen powers to restrict the movement of people smugglers by making it quicker and easier to obtain civil orders – known as serious crime prevention orders – which are used to target offenders such as terrorists and drug traffickers.

The Labour leader told ITV his main aim was ensuring that people did not make it across the English Channel. “The first stage is: how do you work with police forces across countries to ensure that you stop people getting into the boats in the first place, and smash this vile trade?”

Funding for the Labour measures would be redirected from the government’s plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda, currently held up in the courts following a series of legal challenges.

Sir Keir’s meeting with Europol officials on Thursday comes ahead of a trip to Montreal, Canada, for a summit of “progressive” politicians. Reports suggest he is also set to be hosted by French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris next week.

He could also be eyeing a meeting in the White House with US president Joe Biden in the coming months, whose “Bidenomics” and landmark green subsidy push has attracted admiration from the opposition.

Meanwhile, Commons leader Penny Mordaunt said Sir Keir as “zero balls” as she compared him to “Beach Ken” from the Barbie movie. Sir Keir yesterday dubbed Mr Sunak “Inaction Man”.

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