The European Union has so far rebuffed British calls for talks on a deal to allow London to send unwanted migrants back to Europe from 2021, and could use the issue as potential leverage in wider Brexit negotiations, diplomats and officials said.
The agenda for this week’s EU-UK talks on their future relationship after a post-Brexit transition period runs out at the end of 2020 did not include specific talks on returning migrants, though London has long pressed for such a deal.
Brussels diplomats and officials following discussions on Britain’s departure from the bloc told Reuters the EU was playing hard to get, believing an agreement on migrants was more important to Britain than the bloc’s 27 member states.
Hundreds of people, including some children, have tried to cross the English Channel to southern England from makeshift camps in northern France this month – many navigating one of the world’s busiest shipping routes in overloaded rubber dinghies.
Britain’s Home Office said this week the uptick in the numbers attempting the perilous crossing was frustrating.
“That is why the (government) is committed … to ensuring we have legislation ready following the end of the transition period,” it said. “This legislation will build on our continuing work with the French government to stop these crossings.”
Britain wants to be able to ship such migrants back to France or Belgium, where they embarked.
But without a new deal with the EU, once its current arrangements with the bloc end it would be obliged under international humanitarian law to take responsibility for anyone landing on its coast, being fished from the water by its ships or brought to its ports by other vessels.
Unlike with Turkey, where the EU needed a migration pact to ensure Ankara keeps on its soil the millions of Middle Eastern refugees it hosts – the 27 EU countries are in no rush.
“The UK has interest in this. We can wait,” said an EU diplomat dealing with migration. “The 27 are not that worried. Of that, 25 do not really care at all. France and Belgium can be to some extent preoccupied, but far less than the UK is.”
Authorities on Wednesday found a dead Sudanese boy on a beach in northern France, as Paris and London said they would shut down the migrant route across the Channel.
Sources in Brussels hope a final Brexit agreement will be ready for an Oct.15-16 EU leaders’ summit, allowing time for ratification by year-end, though some have warned it might come later.
EU sources said migration would not ultimately be a deal maker or breaker in the negotiations, where fisheries and state aid arrangements are the biggest lingering hurdles.
But a second EU diplomat said migration could play a role, suggesting a trade-off for talks on a new security and defence pact, which the bloc wants but London has refused to engage in so far.
“If they don’t get the overall deal – they don’t have a migration deal either,” said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If they do go for a deal – they may get something on migration as well.”
The U.N. migration agency expressed concern this week about Britain’s plans to deploy its navy to intercept people and return them to mainland Europe.
“Our collective response should be… from saving lives to combating smuggling rings, expanding legal options, and ensuring that all those who are in need of protection can effectively access it,” said the International Organisation for Migration.
It called on London to ensure vulnerable migrants, such as unaccompanied minors, can continue reuniting with families in Britain after Brexit.