Ever since 1963, when the then French president Charles De Gaulle first vetoed its application to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the UK’s relationship to the European project has been refracted through its bilateral relationship with France. It was, after all, the confirmation by his successor Georges Pompidou that he would not repeat de Gaulle’s veto, after a famous tête-à-tête with Edward Heath in May 1971, which sealed the UK’s entry to the EEC.
The relationship has waxed and waned in the period since – and France has ceded much of the leadership it once exercised of the European Union to Germany. Yet, in recent European history, the UK’s interests have needed to be weighed in the balance with those of France. Points of antagonism and mutual antipathy – most notably between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac on the invasion of Iraq – must be set alongside cooperation and cautious entente on defence, security and foreign affairs.
So it is unsurprising that the British prime minister, Theresa May, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, held a bilateral UK-France summit on January 18 at a critical moment in the Brexit negotiations, using the diplomatic opportunity to consolidate cooperation on defence and security.
Britain is trying to leverage its defence and foreign policy assets in the Brexit process, deepening the ties forged in recent years with France on military capabilities and intelligence sharing. Macron is attempting to rebuild French political influence in global affairs, and to shape the future evolution of Europe. Offering to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to the UK is the latest in a string of soft power manoeuvres by the French president in the pursuit of these ambitions.
Le Touquet agreement
Still, Macron preceded the summit at Sandhurst with hard talk on a visit to Calais, declaring that there would be no new “jungle camp” and that security around the Channel crossings would be tightened. He asked the UK government to stump up more cash to improve security measures – and £44.5m was duly agreed by May. However, he did not repeat a demand he and others made in the run up to the French presidential elections in 2017 that the original Le Touquet agreement, signed in 2003, should be renegotiated or abandoned.
This is the agreement between the two countries which established so-called “juxtaposed” border controls on either side of the English Channel at Dover, Calais and Dunkirk. Similar controls already existed for travellers using the Eurotunnel at Coquelles and the Eurostar services between Paris and London. It has commonly been seen in France as “exporting” the UK border to French soil, and with it, the problem of migrants congregating near Calais while attempting to reach the UK.
I attended the 2003 Le Touquet summit in my then capacity as an adviser to the UK home secretary, David Blunkett. For our part, it was a largely ceremonial affair, as all the negotiations on the juxtaposed controls and the future of the Sangatte Camp – a facility in which people seeking entry to the UK were housed – had been concluded by the time of the summit itself. The British government agreed to give the majority of the 2,000 people in the Sangatte camp residence in the UK and issued them with temporary work visas.
Security in Calais was tightened up and pre-embarkation border controls were established on the channel ferries. Flows of migrants to the area declined. What little we know of what happened to the Sangatte residents in the UK – there appears to be only a small-scale study based on 15 interviews – suggests they found employment in low-skilled sectors such as food processing, as refugees and other migrants often do.
The Le Touquet Agreement endured as a framework of Franco-British cooperation for a little over a decade, until the growth in migrant populations coming into the EU to seek refuge from conflict and displacement in North Africa and Syria put it under severe pressure.
Yet despite the pre-election rhetoric, the new “Sandhurst Treaty”, as Macron called it, reaffirms the Le Touquet agreement as the basis for Franco-British cooperation over immigration issues. The formula for cooperation that was created in the early 2000s is reapplied: Britain has agreed to take some asylum seekers from the Calais region in return for increased security and the continued operation of border controls on the continental side.
A new landscape
But the governance of these arrangements has changed since 2003 in two important respects. In the case of unaccompanied minors, exceptional provision for a managed route to the UK was applied under the so-called Dubs Amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act. Campaigners hoped that the UK government would give 3,000 children protection under this route, but the numbers have been limited to 480, despite the willingness of local authorities to engage with the scheme.
The new agreement doesn’t appear to increase the number of people the UK is willing to take, but establishes clear time limits for processing the cases of unaccompanied minors and other asylum seekers. Hundreds of people, including children, are still living rough in Calais.
The second change is that the revised Dublin (III) EU regulations, which came into force in 2013, provide for a claim to asylum to be heard in a member state in which an asylum seeker has family members, as well as offering additional safeguards for minors. If the case is processed efficiently after initial claims are lodged, transfers of asylum cases to the UK from northern France could take place in an ongoing, structured manner. It remains to be seen whether this will happen in practice – not least because the operational capability of the UK Home Office remains weak and Brexit is draining departmental resources across Whitehall.
The bilateral agreements signed between France and the UK occupy a shifting and legally complex zone, within national and EU law governing asylum and migration policy and practice. Brexit will force further changes, the effect of which cannot easily be predicted, particularly if Britain comes out of Dublin III and does not replace it with equivalent law.
But the symbolic potency of immigration to Britain from northern France in fraught and often racist debates about national identity and security – on both sides of the channel – is unlikely to disappear, even if practical cooperation improves. That, unfortunately, is another lesson of recent history.
This piece also appeared on The Conversation