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14 Nov 2023


UK-EU Relations

David Moloney explores whether Rishi Sunak’s strategy of engaging with the EU and member states on the issue of small boats crossing the English Channel is working.

At the start of 2023, the Prime Minister announced as one of his five pledges that the government would ‘stop the small boats.’ The Prime Minister was responding to the challenge of small boats that carried 46,000 people across the English Channel in 2022. Aware that this issue had become politically salient among voters, and within his own party, the Prime Minister has sought to address this migratory challenge in part through the Rwanda policy, the legality of which is about to be decided by the Supreme Court. But another aspect of his strategy has consisted of engagement with EU member states and the European Commission bilaterally and through the European Political Community (EPC) to prevent illegal migrants entering the UK. 10 months into pursing closer ties with the EU and European countries, how well is this strategy working?

Engagement with the EU, individual member states and in the EPC

The first steps taken by the Prime Minister were in March when he met President Macron to strike a joint multi-year funding arrangement at the ‘UK–France leaders’ summit’ with the UK pledging £476 million over a three year period to fund further deployments of ‘law enforcement’ personnel in France and surveillance aircraft, and a new retention centre, while France would establish a ‘Zonal coordination initiative’ to increase operational efficiency. Both countries also agreed to continue to work with the ‘Calais Group’ – Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, with the Commission and the EU’s European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) also in attendance.

The UK has also sought to build on the agreement reached with France by engaging with Italian Prime Minister Meloni on the issue. In April both leaders signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with both countries stressing the need for greater co-operation through a ‘UK-Italy Migration Dialogue’ forum on  illegal migration and in the EPC. Of note is the recognition on the Italian side of its obligation as a member of the EU i.e. processing asylum applications under Dublin III and co-operating with FRONTEX.

Sunak’s relationship with the Commission has been much smoother than it was under his two predecessors. The signing of the Windsor Framework eased tensions between the two sides and has allowed the Prime Minister to build on this improved relationship by seeking to work with the Commission on migratory challenges. While the Commission rejected discussing an asylum returns agreement with the UK in March, both sides are now close to an agreement on sharing intelligence between FRONTEX and Border Force on Channel crossings. Such an agreement would be in line with previous agreements FRONTEX has reached with other third countries such as Albania.

With the creation of the EPC, the Prime Minister has sought to use the forum to secure a more European approach to the issue. At the second EPC summit in June, he pledged that the “UK will be at the heart of this international effort to stop the boats and defend our national security.”

At the third EPC in October the Prime Minister faced both opposition and support for pursing the issue within the forum. Initially Spain pushed back at attempts to add this to agenda, however the Prime Minister and Meloni co-hosted a meeting on illegal migration with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and French President Emmanuel Macron in attendance. Here leaders agreed to tackle small boat crossings in the Channel and in the Mediterranean, through combatting people smugglers operating in third countries and the EU. Likewise, the Prime Minister at the summit moved to develop further co-operation with Belgium, Bulgaria and Serbia on data sharing.

How well is strategy working?

The pressure of the Channel crossings and a more friendly relationship between the EU and the UK post-Windsor has given the Prime Minister the impetus to enhance collaboration with the EU on a salient issue for UK voters. Of course, there are limits to what can be achieved through engagement with the EU and the EPC. A possible burden sharing agreement with the EU could possibly lead to the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people in the UK or the government having to pay €20,000 for each migrant it refuses to resettle. Having left the EU, the UK left the Dublin III framework – which facilitated the return of individuals to the member state that they had first entered – and as a result any agreement with the EU will be unlikely match the same level of co-operation on returns that the UK had as a member.

Attempts by the UK to purse a ‘readmission agreement’ similar to the one it proposed during the transition period have gone nowhere, with the Commission refusing to engage on the issue. With 50% of EU citizens stating that they are ‘not satisfied’ with how the EU has managed migration, along with the difficulties in agreeing the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, it can be argued that the focus for policy-makers in Brussels and across the national capitals will be to prevent entry rather than stopping migrants leaving the EU. The Commission however has opened up the possibility of an agreement with FRONTEX on migration flows, yet such an arrangement would have no impact on combatting small boats crossing the Channel. The role of FRONTEX is to protect the EU’s external border and as such irregular departures from the EU to a third country such as the UK do not fall within its remit.

Likewise, member states are also focused on strengthening their borders which limits the effect of the agreements reached by the Prime Minister with France and Italy. Despite the agreement reached with France, the French government has been more active in preventing illegal migrants entering its territory then stopping the small boats as evidenced by the year-on-year increase in the number of crossings since 2019.

Similarly, while London and Rome are aligned on dealing with migration at a European level, the MoU and side meetings at EPC summits are rather toothless compared to the agreement that Italy has reached with member states in the EU on the Commission’s legislative proposal to allow for burden sharing during crisis situations. Overall, while there have been political wins through this strategy, the UK as a third country has little to offer the EU which could be of interest other than entering into a politically difficult burden sharing agreement.

By Dr David Moloney, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, The Open University.


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