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Europe could sink Priti Patel’s bid to stop the boats

Inflatable dinghies used by migrants to cross the channel from France are stored in a compound in Dover, England - Credit: Getty Images

Control of the UK’s borders helped drive the Brexit vote. Now, Priti Patel must hope for European co-operation for her immigration clampdown

The desire to have control over the UK’s borders was one of the strongest arguments for the Leave side to win the EU referendum. Now, five years on, the British government is determined to implement this regained power. Or, rather, to attempt to do just that.

Back in March, Priti Patel promised a “fair but firm overhaul” of the asylum system when she presented her ‘New Plan for Immigration’ to the House of Commons. This month, the home secretary is expected to introduce her Sovereign Borders Bill, the legislative underpinning for the biggest shake-up in the asylum system for 50 years.

Thanks to Brexit, she does not need to follow EU asylum rules anymore. She can propose her own laws, and Patel’s approach is a radical one: any asylum seeker who makes it to British shores in an illegal way will only ever gain a “temporary protection status”.

The majority of people seeking refuge in Britain will hence face the permanent anxiety of being deported instead of a safe future. This way, the home secretary intends to stop the work of “serious organised criminal gangs” who are exploiting people trying to get to the UK. “If, like over 60% of illegal arrivals, (those migrants) have travelled through a safe country like France to get here, they will not have immediate entry into the asylum system”, Patel warns.

Ideally, those who still risk the journey will be sent back swiftly to that safe country they crossed to come to the UK. Hence, Patel wants to establish readmission agreements with EU member states to make her ‘New Plan’ work.

It is difficult to escape a certain degree of irony looking at her proposal: In one of the most contentious issues of the Brexit debate, immigration, Britain is now trying to establish a partnership it has just left.

When asked in parliament recently how far advanced her discussions with those on the continent were, the home secretary was short on details. However, asking member states concerned, the answer comes swiftly: “This is only a British wish. There are no such negotiations, except for individual cases of readmission of unaccompanied minors,” a Quai d’Orsay source is happy to be quoted. The French Foreign Office confirms: “There is no interest at all in a bilateral agreement because the majority of asylum seekers travel through France.” They would have to be readmitted to France, if Patel’s wishes came true, “whatever their point of entry into the EU was”.

The answer from Berlin sounds less confrontational, but the result for the home secretary is the same. Rather than considering any bilateral talks, “the German government would support agreements on an EU level with the United Kingdom”, the Innenministerium says.

Like France next spring, Germany is having an election in September, and immigration will be one of the most controversial topics of the campaign. Germany registered 166,000 asylum applications in 2019, four times more than Britain. While London in 2015 pledged to take in 20,000 refugees from the Syrian war zones during a period of five years, Germany received more than a million refugees from the Middle East and beyond in a few months.

Berlin knows how keenly the British government wants to reduce the number of asylum seekers on its territory. Before the end of the Brexit transition period last December, the UK readmitted the highest number of asylum seekers back to the continent. Applying the EU’s Dublin system, which obliges member states to take people back who entered the Union through their country, London tripled her readmission applications to the German authorities, in comparison with 2019. “We observed an intensification of readmission pleas up to the end of the transition period,” the German Home Office confirms. Since January 1, London cannot send any asylum seekers back into the EU.

Hence, Patel’s hope rests on Brussels. Relations currently are delicate, as the visit by vice president Maros Sefcovic proved last week. “Our patience is running thin”, Lord Frost’s counterpart explained when asked about British demands to be more flexible on implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol. Three long years of tumultuous negotiations with London have left their mark – to only continue in what was meant to be a new chapter.

Confronted with the latest British demand on asylum cooperation, the EU Commission emphasises that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) “does not include provisions on asylum and return. For the moment, our focus is on its implementation, and we are not considering pursuing further negotiations to complement the Agreement at the EU level.”

Meanwhile, the pressure on Patel will only grow. More than 4,500 people have crossed the Channel this year so far, 1,200 of them in the last 14 days. The warmer weather will tempt an increasing number of migrants, waiting on the French shores to make the perilous journey. “The British public are fed up, they’re absolutely fed up and demoralised with what we have been seeing,“ Patel told MPs. She urged social media platforms to remove videos from their platforms which “glamourise” what Patel calls “lethal crossings”.

But the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate, despite the home secretary’s appeals. Kent County Council has taken the first step in legal action against the home secretary because it cannot safely accommodate the number of lone child migrants arriving on its shores. This year, 242 unaccompanied children have been passed to the children’s services in Kent, but only 52 were moved to other local authorities. Conservative council leader Roger Gough said “those others who do not participate frankly put a lot of pressure those who do”.

It remains questionable if Patel’s Borders Bill will change any of this for the better. Not only because the refusal by the EU to cooperate knocks off a cornerstone of her ‘New Plan’. Campaigners have already announced they will fight her proposals in the courts once it is published as they expect the legislation to be in breech of the UN Refugee Convention. Taking back control is likely to prove difficult.

Stefanie Bolzen is UK and Ireland correspondent for Welt and Welt am Sonntag

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