It’s no surprise that demands from French politicians to scrap the Le Touquet deal and shift the migrant ‘jungle’ from Calais to Dover has gone down badly in Britain. Today’s front pages are full of talk of ‘Le Stitch up’. And the Home Office has waded in to say these plans are a complete ‘non starter’. This all sets the scene for a testy meeting for Amber Rudd as she crosses the Channel to meet her French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, for talks today. Their meeting will be a private one but it isn’t difficult to work out that Calais will be top of their agenda.
What’s difficult about finding a solution, however, is that all of this talk is something of a phoney war of words, at least for now. The current French government has no plans to change things (a deal was signed last summer pledging further co-operation over Calais). Yet it’s the frontrunners in next year’s presidential race who have been talking about scrapping the deal. This means that whilst we’ll hear more of the platitudes that co-operation will continue, it’s the French politicians of tomorrow who will actually set the agenda – putting the UK Government in something of a limbo. Of course, the realities of the situation may end up forcing some of those French presidential wannabes, including Nicolas Sarkozy, into making a U-turn as they realise opening up the border might actually make things worse. As Charlie Elphicke, MP for Dover pointed out on the radio this morning, doing so would turn Calais into even more of a ‘magnet’ for migrants; and that’s in no one’s interests. But there’s still a worry that, at least, for now, Britain is something of a passive hostage to this growing demand in France for something to be done about an increasingly intolerable situation in Calais.
It’s worth remembering though that the history of co-operation on this issue between France and the UK isn’t solely based on French generosity or hospitality. Britain pumps money into ensuring security in Calais; and tough border checks are the reason the Calais jungles has 9,000 occupants, rather than 90,000. But this still hasn’t stopped a Government source issuing a thinly-veiled threat in the Times this morning. The newspaper reports quotes from a senior Whitehall source to suggest that scrapping the Le Touquet agreemeent could have wider implication for intelligence sharing between the two countries. It goes on to suggest that the balance of this agreement is loaded in favour of the French and that they would have little interest in changing this. This sort of talk won’t do much to foster good feeling between France and Britain. But it makes it clear, once again, that tearing up the deal between the two countries is trickier – and more costly to France – than it first appears: showing that for all the bluster being spoken, it’s unlikely the likes of Sarkozy will want to follow through with their warnings.