EU Referendum

Immigration: the wrong target


It is hard to disagree with Emmanuel Macron's reported view that prime minister Johnson is "un clown" in charge of a "circus", but one might stop short of endorsing his claim that he is guilty of creating "phoney wars" against France to placate a Brexit-weary public.

Even if the latter was true, we don't need Johnson to ramp up the tension, when it is becoming increasingly obvious that the French president also has his own agenda, playing to his own constituency, with the forthcoming election in mind.

Central to the current tense relationship, of course, is the surge of dinghy people and the feeling in some quarters that France isn't doing nearly enough to interrupt the flow of illegal immigrants or deal with the activities of organised crime and the exploitation of what has become a lucrative trade.

On the other hand, we have interior minister Gérald Darmanin accusing the British of making the UK "too attractive" to migrants while Europe minister Clément Beaune is pointing the finger at us for adopting "an economic model of, sometimes, quasi-modern slavery".

By making "illegal work" too easy, and "not going back to a certain number of checks, on more humane, more compliant labour market regulation", Beaune says, "this attraction will remain".

There are those, including the French themselves, who claim that it is extremely difficult to prevent the dinghy armada launching towards England, and therefore that the ultimate resolution lies in the UK reducing the "pull" factors which draw the immigrants to these shores.

Having thus exculpated themselves from any responsibility for the crisis, therefore, Johnson's letter to the French president - setting out measures that he believed would solve the crisis – went down like a bucket of cold sick, not least because it put most of the onus on the French authorities.

Amongst Johnson's proposals was a suggestion that the French used "airborne surveillance" to assist in monitoring and intercepting the migrants, using manned and unmanned aircraft, "perhaps flying under joint insignia".

The idea of joint patrols, however, was quickly turned down by France, citing concerns about "sovereignty", even though the French are quite happy to accept UK support in Mali, where RAF Chinook helicopters provide a heavy-lift combat support role.

But, while British assets are employed in support of French operations in Mali, what has subsequently emerged is how little effort is being expended to stem the flow of migrants on French soil.

This becomes clear from the recent news that France is to co-opt the EU's border and coastguard agency, Frontex, to assist in policing its coastline, to which effect the agency has provided a single patrol aircraft.

As it turns out, the aircraft is a Bombardier Challenger 604 maritime patrol aircraft, owned and operated by the Royal Danish Air Force, on loan to the agency, having been used previously in Greece and the Mediterranean.

Thus, although the French are being prissy about UK assets being used, they seem content to have a Danish-operated aircraft patrolling its shores under the aegis of the EU. This, it would appear, does not affect their "sovereignty", although a UK or jointly operated aircraft under French operational command would be an unacceptable breach.

Furthermore, while Challenger is a capable aircraft, fitted with side-looking radar, forward-looking infra-red and an advanced communications suite – capable, amongst other things, of intercepting and locating mobile phone signals – it is only one aircraft. To maintain credible, 24/7 coverage (even if only for a short time), more than one aircraft would be needed.

This raises the question as to why the French are not prepared to use their own aircraft. Not least the Gendarmerie operate a fleet of 15 Airbus EC145 helicopters, some of which are fitted with Wescam MX-15 imaging systems, or equivalent. These aircraft are thus superbly equipped for shore patrols, and for delivering rapid response interception teams.

In terms of maritime patrol aircraft, the French also have their Bréguet Atlantic fleet, including the highly capable ATL 2 upgrades which have enhanced detection systems, including the Wescam MX-20 electro-optical turret.

Inevitably, none of these assets are cheap to operate, but Frontex has been experimenting with aerostats, specifically for border surveillance. They are in the final stage of testing in Greece, where they have been patrolling 24/7 in the vicinity of Alexandroupoli and on the island of Limnos.

The fact, though, that Frontex is only now bringing such equipment into use is perhaps part of the problem, especially as its use of UAVs for border surveillance has been unsuccessful (so far), indicating a lack of member state commitment to the EU's border operations.

Certainly, Greece has been voluble in its complaints about the lack of EU support, which has had Greek coastguards beating a dinghy full of migrants and opening fire into the water close to the vessel.

Italy, on the other hand, has long felt abandoned by the EU, as has one of the other so-called "front-line countries", Malta. It has its minister for European and foreign affairs, Evarist Bartolo, complaining that, for too long, Europe has buried its head in the sand when it comes to tackling migration.

Front-line countries, he says, cannot be left to face migratory pressures alone, and solidarity among member countries should not be limited to the ad-hoc approach of the past few years whereby only some governments occasionally intervene and alleviate some of the burden experienced by the front-liners.

And then, there was very far from a harmonious approach when it came to the "hybrid warfare" on the Polish-Belarus border, where member states failed to agree on the line to take.

Looking at the migration problem in the round, therefore, it seems that France and the UK are misdirecting their efforts by fighting each other. In many senses, they have common cause in being adversely affected by the failure of the EU and the rest of the member states to get their acts together on "irregular" migration.

In this context, it is entirely fair to say that "Europe" is not doing enough to police its common borders, or to resolve the myriad of legal issues that stem from an obsolete international system which is no longer fit for purpose (if it ever was).

This aside, when it comes to the maritime border between France and the UK, we can with justice argue that, on a technical level, the French are by no means doing all that they could.

The French government might thus argue that it has other, more pressing problems, but its failure to intervene would be a political decision rather than a reflection of physical limitations. If France wanted to stop the boats, it could – given that it was prepared to spend the money and allocate the necessary resources.

At the very least, the French government could be more candid about where the problems lie, while the UK might be better advised to direct its wrath to Brussels rather than Paris, if it wants to see a long-term solution. As it stands, the French are the wrong target. This is an EU problem, and the EU must solve it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.