Emmanuel Macron could stop the boats, but what would be in it for him?

Rishi Sunak didn’t get all he wanted in Paris, so there may be more negotiations to come, says John Rentoul

Friday 10 March 2023 19:14 GMT
If Sunak has persuaded Macron to change French law so that those attempting Channel crossings could be detained, that would be a significant step
If Sunak has persuaded Macron to change French law so that those attempting Channel crossings could be detained, that would be a significant step (via Reuters)

The most important feature of the deal between Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron, according to the No 10 news release, is a new detention centre in France, for which the British taxpayer will help to pay. But what is it for?

The release explains, tautologically, that it will “increase detention capacity”, but it also says that it will allow “more migrants who might otherwise travel by dangerous and illegal routes to the UK to be removed from the French coast”. That is a new and significant development, which wasn’t mentioned by either the prime minister or the president at their joint news conference.

At the moment, the French police do not arrest people on beaches who appear to be getting ready to board a dinghy to try to cross the Channel. They stop them, on grounds of safety, and confiscate the dinghies, but usually let the would-be passengers go. “French legislation makes it very difficult for French officers to take any action in that way,” Dan O’Mahoney, the Clandestine Channel Threat commander, told the home affairs committee last year.

If Sunak has persuaded Macron to change French law so that those attempting Channel crossings could be detained, that would be a significant step, although it is not obvious how long they would be held for and what would happen to them afterwards.

Otherwise, today’s talk of a “new beginning” and an “entente renewed” amounts to an attempt by Sunak to make the most of failing to get what he really wanted, which was an agreement that France would take back those who make the unauthorised crossing. The conventional wisdom is that there is no way the French would agree to such a deal, but my impression is that Sunak tried hard to persuade Macron. His argument would have been that if France allowed the British to return immediately those who cross the Channel, no one would try to cross the Channel, and fewer irregular migrants would come to France in order to try to get to the UK.

British patrols claim to intercept 99 per cent of small boats making the crossing, so it would be possible to shut down almost all irregular cross-Channel traffic. That would mean the French authorities would not need to police their beaches, because no one would be attempting the crossing.

There would not be much in such a deal for Macron, who would have to account to his own electorate for France taking in people turned away by the British. But that would be a short-term cost, because if migrants stop trying to cross there will quickly be no returns.

Hence the ingenious suggestion put forward last month by Kit Malthouse, the Conservative MP whose name is associated with one of the ill-fated attempts to break the Brexit deadlock in 2019. Most of us have now forgotten what “maximum facilitation” was, but the phrase “the Malthouse compromise” still echoes from those strange times.

His latest contribution was to suggest that Britain should offer to take a genuine refugee already in France for every person crossing the Channel who is returned to France. As he pointed out, this would not be a particularly generous offer, because the returns policy would mean that the cross-Channel traffic would cease. But it might help Macron to sell the policy at home.

That idea might seem too slick, but other similar ideas were probably discussed by Sunak and Macron in their hour together without officials. I cannot believe that Sunak really thinks it is a “sensible investment” – his phrase – to pay the French government a lot of money to step up patrols on French beaches, which would at best only slow the rate of increase in small-boat crossings.

Sunak the deal-maker hasn’t yet secured the kind of surprise breakthrough that he achieved with the Northern Ireland protocol, but the mysterious detention centre in northern France suggests that there is more of this negotiation to come.

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