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The French government is to take advantage of its six-month presidency of the EU council of ministers to negotiate an asylum and migration agreement between the bloc and the UK in a bid to create a legal and reciprocal means of immigration between the two sides.
The idea, as confirmed by a senior French government official, is so people “can legally go to Great Britain to seek asylum”.
Adding “obviously that means reciprocity”, they suggested British authorities could send people denied asylum back to the EU country in which they had initially arrived.
The source told The Guardian: “We would be prepared to consider this.”
Such an arrangement existed before the UK left the EU. However, during Brexit talks, the Government was refused an asylum pact that would have allowed the UK to return people denied asylum to the EU.
Now, though, with France seemingly determined to get migration under control, the EU could cede the UK what it originally asked for.
The source emphasised: “The idea is to have a zero balance at the end of the day.”
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The French government is to pursue an EU-wide migration treaty with the UK
Stating that not only France but also Belgium and the Netherlands were “struggling with a major problem” as thousands of people entered their countries seeking to get to the UK, the source argued the treaty was “a very important European question, not just a French question”.
But whether the rest of the EU and the UK are willing to negotiate such a deal remains unclear.
Brexit talks have deteriorated EU-UK ties, and Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, made that clear last month.
Speaking to the press, she said: “We have quite some concerns with the implementation of the TCA [Trade and Cooperation Agreement] and the protocol on Northern Ireland right now, so I should guess that the appetite from member states to go into negotiations for a new agreement [on migration]… is limited.”
People aiming to reach the UK via the EU pose ‘a major problem’ to several countries in the bloc
In 2020, France received 93,470 asylum applications — second in the EU right after Germany — and the UK received 29,456.
Meanwhile, according to the Office for Immigration and Integration (OFII), the number of migrants rescued off the coast of Calais and taken in by France tripled in 2021.
OFII told AFP: “The number of people shipwrecked off the coast of Calais and taken to safety was 1,002 in 2021.”
This compares to 341 the year before – an increase of 194 percent.
Home Office figures show that at least 28,395 people successfully made the perilous journey across the Channel last year – a substantial increase on 2020 when roughly 8,500 people arrived at the English coast.
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Record year sees more than 28,300 people cross Channel to UK
In November, the English Channel saw its deadliest shipwreck to date as at least 27 people — 17 men, seven women and three children — drowned while attempting to get from France to the UK.
Both countries blamed people traffickers and smugglers for the tragedy but the two did not find a joint solution to stop the illegal and incredibly dangerous crossings.
The British Government says the bloc’s border-free travel zone is a key issue.
Home Secretary Priti Patel blames the EU’s lack of border protection for the migrant crisis
Home Secretary Priti Patel said last year: “Let’s not forget that the real problem on illegal migration flows is the EU has no border protections whatsoever – Schengen open borders.
“I think it’s fair to say they [France] are overwhelmed. That is a fact.
“When you think about the flows, what are they doing? They are absolutely patrolling the beaches [but] I would maintain the numbers are so significant that have they got enough resources?
“We are constantly pressing France on this.”
France, for its part, claims the UK has lax labour market laws that attract illegal migrants.
Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, described the migration issue as “first and foremost an English issue”.
He said in November: “There is — let’s say it — an economic model of, sometimes, quasi-modern slavery or at least of illegal work that is very strong.”
He added exploitation of illegal workers “is more prevalent in the UK than [in France] because there are less checks”.
Talks over the EU-wide UK migration treaty is thought to be part of a wider French agenda of tighter management of the free movement of people.
The news comes just months before the French election this spring, where it is believed President Emmanuel Macron will seek another term.