France hosts a meeting of European ministers on Sunday to discuss ways to stop migrants crossing the Channel in dinghies, but without Britain, which has been excluded following a row last week.
Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium will meet in the northern French port of Calais on Sunday afternoon to discuss how to tackle people-smuggling gangs that provide boats to migrants seeking to cross the narrow waterway.
The talks were called following the shocking deaths of 27 people last Wednesday as they attempted to cross from France to England in a dinghy that began losing air while at sea in cold winter temperatures.
The aim of the meeting is “improving operational cooperation in the fight against people-smuggling because these are international networks which operate in different European countries,” an aide to French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told AFP.
The main focus had been set to be talks between Darmanin and his British counterpart Priti Patel after both countries vowed in the immediate aftermath of the mass drownings to cooperate more together.
Working more closely would require Paris and London to overcome years of ill-will caused by Britain’s departure from the European Union, as well as often frosty ties between their governments.
Within 48 hours of the accident, French President Emmanuel Macron had accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of being “not serious” in unusually personal criticism that pushed relations to fresh lows.
France was irked by Johnson’s initial reaction, which was seen as deflecting blame onto France, and then by his decision to write a letter to Macron which he published in full on his Twitter account before the French leader had received it.
Patel’s invitation to Sunday’s talks was promptly withdrawn, with an aide to Darmanin calling Johnson’s public letter “unacceptable”.
Without the participation of Britain – the destination country for the thousands of migrants massed in northern France – there are limits to what can be achieved.
The invitation to France’s other northern neighbours reflects concern about how people-smuggling gangs are able to use Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany as bases to organise their operations.
Many migrants are believed to travel to launch sites in northern France from Belgium, while inflatables and life jackets can be bought in other countries such as the Netherlands and Germany without raising suspicion.
One of the five men arrested in connection with the accident last Wednesday was driving a car with German registration, according to French officials.
“Let’s not forget that the real problem on illegal migration flows is the EU has no border protections whatsoever,” Patel said in the middle of November, referring to the EU’s border-free Schengen zone.
While France and Britain agree on the need to tackle people-smugglers more effectively, they remain at odds over how to prevent people travelling to northern France to seek passage to the UK.
In his public letter to Macron, Johnson again pressed for British police and border agents to patrol alongside their French counterparts along the coast – something rejected in the past as infringing on French sovereignty.
More controversially, he also proposed sending back all migrants who land in England, which he claimed would save “thousands of lives by fundamentally breaking the business model of the criminal gangs”.
The European Commission’s vice president on Saturday bluntly told Britain it needed to sort out its own migrant problems after its decision to leave the EU following a 2016 referendum.
“I recall well the main slogan of the referendum campaign is ‘we take back control’,” Margaritis Schinas told reporters during a trip to Greece.
“Since the UK took back control it’s up to them now to find the necessary measures to operationalise the control they took back.”
France has suggested Britain should process asylum requests in northern France.
‘No information on the smugglers’
Investigations into last week’s accident continue, with French police giving no details officially about the circumstances or the identities of the victims.
A total of 17 men, seven women and three minors died, with migrants living along the coast telling AFP that the deceased were mostly Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans.
One of the victims has been identified as Maryam Nuri Hama Amin, a woman in her twenties from Soran, a town in Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan.
She was travelling to England to join her fiancee and in search of “a better life,” her father Nuri Hama Amin told AFP in an interview at her family home.
“We have no information on the smugglers,” he added. “Their promises turned out to be lies.”