EU ministers meeting in Calais called for a new agreement with the UK on Sunday to tackle the surge of migrants trying to cross the Channel to England from France in small boats.
Four days after 27 people died when a dinghy capsized, Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, said European authorities would work towards “an even more intense” battle against people smugglers organising boat crossings for migrants across the Channel. He added that the main driver for displaced people was the attractiveness of life in the UK.
Ministers responsible for immigration from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany met on Sunday afternoon to discuss ways to end small-boat crossings.
Speaking afterwards, Darmanin said: “If migrants come here to Calais . . . and risk their lives to cross the Channel, it is because they are attracted to England, especially by the labour market.”
He said concrete decisions had been taken to improve surveillance of how smugglers buy and transport boats, and ministers had agreed that a new UK-EU migration policy framework was needed in the coming weeks.
Darmanin announced that, from Wednesday, the EU will deploy an aeroplane to monitor and police migration traffic in the Channel. This aircraft will “fly day and night” over the area, from France to the Netherlands, he said.
Since the sinking on Wednesday, which has shaken politicians across Europe, London and Paris have bickered over a workable response.
The intractability of the 25-year-old crisis was underlined on Friday when France angrily withdrew its invitation to Priti Patel, UK home secretary, after Boris Johnson wrote a letter to President Emmanuel Macron and publicised it on Twitter. The British prime minister called for French and British maritime patrols to operate in each other’s territorial waters and for the thousands of migrants who reach English shores to be returned to France.
Macron and his ministers objected both to the content of the letter, which blamed France for the crisis while reviving proposals already rejected by Paris, and to how it was immediately made accessible to the British media.
“This meeting was not anti-British. It was pro-European,” Darmanin said on Sunday evening. “We must work with our British friends.”
“Great Britain left political Europe, but it did not leave the world,” he said, adding that the UK also had to create routes for displaced people to apply for asylum. France has suggested that the UK send protection officers to France to process asylum requests in advance so that migrants do not risk their lives trying to reach England.
Stephan Mayer, parliamentary secretary of state at Germany’s interior ministry, said an “agreement between the EU and Great Britain” was urgently needed.
Ylva Johansson, European commissioner for home affairs, as well as leaders of Europol and Frontex, the EU’s policing and borders agencies, attended the meeting on Sunday.
Michel Duclos, senior fellow at the Montaigne Institute in Paris and an adviser to interior ministers under former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, said he believed policing was not enough: “We should think in terms of offering a legal route to the Afghans, the Iranians, the Syrians and . . . the Ethiopians.”
“France and the EU should contribute but it’s clear that the UK should be open to asylum seekers, coming from France, like any other civilised nation,” he added.
One Whitehall source said: “We will this week have more talks with counterparts on how we can work together to resolve this Europe wide crisis. Priti’s nationality and borders bill is the first step in addressing the broken asylum system and the pull factors it creates.”
Patel warned over the weekend that failure to co-operate would lead to “even worse scenes” in the Channel over the next few months.
In a statement, she vowed to “continue to push” for action during “urgent talks with my European counterparts” this week “to prevent further tragedies in the Channel”.