Lord Kirkhope is a former Immigration Minister and Leader of Conservative MEPs.
Left wing, right wing, leave supporter or remain voter, we all ought to want to ‘stop the boats’. And to ‘stop the boats’, we must work with Europe. Whether it’s the English Channel or the Mediterranean Sea, migrants are using small boats, often in perilous conditions, to cross open waters and reach European shores. Across the European continent, countries are struggling to deal migratory pressures. The UK is by no means unique.
During this week’s meeting of the European Political Community in Spain, the UK has emerged as a key player in leading calls for greater cooperation and demanding “creative Europe-wide solutions.” While the ECP is an informal grouping and its decisions are not binding, it does provide an opportunity for the UK to talk to political leaders from across the continent.
Readers of ConservativeHome may have come across last week’s joint op-ed in The Times by Rishi Sunak and Giorgia Meloni. It is necessary to differentiate between the two streams of proposals that might emerge: ‘upstream’, soft cooperation, working bilaterally or multilaterally in third countries; and formal ‘internal’ cooperation that deals with asylum returns. The latter, for legal and political reasons, will inevitably need to be done at the EU level.
What might these solutions be, and how might they work? These are the questions policymakers throughout Europe are asking. Perhaps they should also be asking, ‘Is the 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement a blueprint for UK-EU cooperation?’
Introduced against the backdrop of the Syrian refugee crisis, it had five key components.
Were we to apply this situation in the English Channel, the proposal could be as follows: France would increase measures in Calais and along the coast to prevent migrant crossings, both sides establishing a cut-off date, after which anyone crossing from France would be returned to the EU. In return, the UK would commit to resettling one registered asylum seeker from France (or the broader EU). The Rwanda Agreement works in both directions; it allows for the UK to take asylum seekers from Rwanda as well.
History suggests this would probably put an end to people smuggling and would restore control of the channel. After the EU-Turkey Agreement, the number of people crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands, which had been one million in the 12 months before, fell to just three per cent.
Another key area of collaboration with our European partners is upstream cooperation. Investment in collective initiatives with third countries focused on reintegration or development efforts can prevent would-be migrants from leaving. Investing in third countries is a cost-effective solution compared to the expenses associated with hosting migrants, processing asylum applications and providing accommodation.
Conversely, third countries that claim to be democracies with human rights protections should obliged to take back failed asylum seekers or face financial and political penalties.
We should also consider participation in ‘Team Europe Initiatives,’ which are open to non-EU partners. It has evolved into the standard framework for collaborative projects where the European Union, along with multiple Member States and/or European financial institutions, combine their resources and expertise to address developmental challenges.
As one of the architects of the Dublin Agreements, which dealt with responsibility-sharing and returns between EU member states, I am the first to admit that the theory was good, but the practice did not work. The EU has now recognised this and is working on a wide-ranging set of reforms for the Common European Asylum Policy, including new proposals to replace Dublin. The UK cannot afford to turn its back and adopt a completely different set of policies from the EU. Instead, it should seek to engage with their new proposals and be associated with them.
It is a fact that outside of the EU, we have lost real-time access to many information-sharing databases. An agreement with Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency, represents a positive step forward to enable more extensive sharing of vital information regarding migration trends and facilitating collaborative operations among border agencies. However, we must not forget that UK-EU security and policing provisions, found in part 3 of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, are totally dependent on membership of the ECHR.
Migrancy is going to be an even more significant issue for the UK and the EU in the years ahead. It is crucial that both sides find ways to collaborate. It is patently in our collective interest. This would restore public trust in our immigration systems, prevent countless lives being lost at sea, put an end to human trafficking gangs and (as we all want) ‘stop the boats’.