France hosts a meeting of European ministers on Sunday to discuss ways to stop migrants crossing the Channel in dinghies, but without Britain, which has been excluded following a row last week.
Ministers responsible for immigration from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium will meet in the northern French port of Calais on Sunday afternoon to discuss how to tackle people-smuggling gangs that provide boats to migrants seeking to cross the narrow waterway.
The talks were called following the shocking deaths of 27 people last Wednesday as they attempted to cross from France to England in a dinghy that began losing air while at sea in cold winter temperatures.
The aim of the meeting is “improving operational cooperation in the fight against people-smuggling because these are international networks which operate in different European countries,” an aide to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told AFP.
The main focus had been set to be talks between Darmanin and his British counterpart Priti Patel after both countries vowed in the immediate aftermath of the mass drownings to cooperate more.
But within 48 hours of the accident, French President Emmanuel Macron had accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being “not serious” in unusually personal criticism that pushed relations to fresh lows.
France was irked by Johnson’s initial reaction, which was seen as deflecting blame onto France, and then by his decision to write a letter to Macron which he published in full on his Twitter account before the French leader had received it.
Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s talks was promptly withdrawn over the breach of diplomatic protocol, with an aide to Darmanin calling Johnson’s letter “unacceptable.”
Britain’s departure from the European Union has caused years of ill-will between Paris and London, with relations seen as at their lowest point in at least two decades.
Without the participation of Britain — the destination country for the thousands of migrants massed in northern France — there are limits to what can be achieved at the meeting.
The invitation to France’s other northern neighbors reflects concern about how people-smuggling gangs are able to use Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as bases to organize their operations.
Representatives from the European Commission, as well as the EU’s border force Frontex and police agency Europol will also attend.
Many migrants are believed to travel to launch sites in northern France from Belgium, while inflatables and life jackets can be bought in other countries such as the Netherlands and Germany without raising suspicion.
One of the five men arrested in connection with the accident last Wednesday was driving a car with German registration, according to French officials.
While France and Britain agree on the need to tackle people-smugglers more effectively, they remain at odds over how to prevent people taking to the water.
In his public letter to Macron, Johnson again pressed for British police and border agents to patrol alongside their French counterparts along the coast — something rejected in the past as infringing on French sovereignty.
More controversially, he also proposed sending back all migrants who land in England, which he claimed would save “thousands of lives by fundamentally breaking the business model of the criminal gangs.”
“Those are exactly the kinds of things we need to do,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News on Sunday, while denying that Johnson had made a mistake by publishing his letter to Macron.
“Our policy is very clear: these boats must stop. We can’t just do it on our own. We do need the cooperation of the French,” he added.
The European Commission’s vice president on Saturday bluntly told Britain it needed to sort out its own problems after its decision to leave the EU following a 2016 referendum.
“I recall well the main slogan of the referendum campaign is ‘we take back control’,” Margaritis Schinas told reporters during a trip to Greece.
France, which received 80,000 asylum requests in 2020 compared with 27,000 in the UK, has suggested Britain should enable migrants to lodge their demands in northern France.
Activist groups have also called for safe routes for asylum seekers to arrive in Britain.
Investigations into last week’s accident continue, with French police giving no details officially about the circumstances or the identities of the victims.
A total of 17 men, seven women and three minors died, with migrants living along the coast telling AFP that the deceased were mostly Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans.