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Macron to ask Britain to pay up to save Calais border deal

Philippe Huguen, AFP | Migrants gather near the barbed wire fence of a truck parking lot near the N216 highway that leads to the ferry terminal, on January 12, 2018 in Calais.

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday where he is expected to ask the UK to take in more refugees from the Calais area and increase its funding for securing the border.


Macron and May will discuss Brexit and Le Touquet accord, a 2003 agreement that effectively allowed Britain to establish a border in France, meaning the Calais area has become a temporary home for hundreds of migrants hoping to cross to England.

Le Touquet treaty is “objectively speaking, extremely convenient for Britain”, said Gino Raymond, Professor of Modern French Studies at Bristol University.

If Britain and France fail to strike a new deal, the nuclear option for France would be to return to border posts on either side of the Channel. Under the Dublin Regulation, Britain would then have to deport migrants back to the country where they entered the EU instead of to France, where any illegal migrants who make it to the UK are currently returned.

In light of Brexit, “there is a feeling in Paris that Britain has chosen its path and can’t expect France to be as flexible, generous and accommodating as in the past,” said Raymond. “It’s a delicate balance however, between exploiting the UK’s desire to keep the migrants at bay and understanding the role that those fears played in triggering Brexit in the first place,” Raymond added.

Coping with the migrant crisis

French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, who has taken the lead on talks, says he wants the British to shoulder more of the costs of dealing with migrants seeking to cross the Channel. He also wants to speed up the transfer to the UK of refugees with “legitimate” claims, especially unaccompanied minors.

'They come because Calais is 20 miles from Great Britain'

Neither the French nor the British governments want to make the French port city of Calais a magnet for those seeking to enter the UK. In the two decades since the Channel Tunnel opened, Calais has been a temporary home to thousands of refugees. At the peak of the crisis, up to 10,000 migrants squatted in a sprawling makeshift camp, before former president François Hollande sent in the bulldozers in October 2016.

Collomb said about 400 people remain in the area, compared to 7,000 last year. Despite the opening of new reception centres and efforts to relocate migrants to different regions of France, the Calais region continues to be a draw for those seeking to cross the border. “There will always be migrants who want to go to England … those who are still sleeping outside don’t want to go (to the centres), because they don’t want to seek asylum in France,” he said.

France announced last week that it had received a record 100,000 asylum requests in 2017. An additional 85,000 people were reportedly stopped at French borders and refused entry to the country. But Britain is unlikely to agree to take in refugees or migrants hoping to reunite with family and friends, even if the numbers are only in the hundreds.

While May is in a weak negotiating position with Macron, she does not have much leeway at home. “Whatever transpires in the talks, she is very conscious of the fact that within her own party there is a very powerful right wing that is anti-European and anti-immigration and she cannot be seen to be giving too much. That’s the difficult line that she has to tread,” said Raymond.

“Any commitment in terms of numbers of asylum seekers could be politically dangerous, however laudable in humanitarian terms. It’ll be easier to throw money at the problem,” said Raymond.

Common ground?

Collomb said that the main objective in the talks will be to ensure that Britain “helps finance development in Calais". “It is in their interest that things go well,” Collomb pointed out on Tuesday, since “a quarter of their trade passes through Calais”.

But neither France nor Britain wants to see local economies suffer as a consequence of Brexit. Ports on both sides of the Channel benefit from the high volume of ferry, train, and tunnel traffic and none have the infrastructure to accommodate customs checks for the millions of trucks they handle every year. The Calais region, already one of France’s poorest areas, fears that post-Brexit tarifs and the return of a customs border would slow transit times, pushing up costs and lowering the trade volume.

“There won’t be much appetite for returning the border to the other side of the Channel," predicted Richard C. Whitman, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. “The bigger question will be how much is each side willing to concede to set a positive tone for post-Brexit relations?”

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