Fthe French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, is a sensitive soul. He doesn’t like British politicians saying nice things to him in private, then turning around and using “insulting” and “strongly hostile” language in the House of Commons and in the press. He is particularly upset by his British counterpart, Priti Patel, and his boss, Boris Johnson, doing this on the subject of immigration.
One may wonder where the French minister spent his political education to become so innocent of political reality. Yet the gist of Darmanin’s complaint is true. The current cross-Channel migration crisis has two dimensions. One is real human angst requiring diplomatic and practical resolution. The other is its exploitation in a brawl for public and political consumption. Thousands of refugees sought British shores last year, and last week tragedy struck, 27 of them having died on the crossing.
It was more than Johnson could take. The tragedy mocked his bragging that Brexit would allow him to ‘take back control’ of immigration. In response, he duly written to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, with his proposals to end cross-Channel migration, formulated as virtual demands. They included the stationing of British forces on French soil and the immediate return of people to France. He had to know they were unacceptable.
Strangely, Johnson posted his letter on Twitter even before it was delivered through diplomatic channels. His message was clearly aimed at the British public rather than the Elysee, and it could hardly have been better designed to infuriate the latter.
Macron’s response to the Channel tragedy had been to call an emergency meeting of European migration ministers in Calais. The predictable result of Johnson’s letter was that Priti Patel was uninvited from the meeting. With Britain’s interest ruled out, ministers simply insisted that any solution to ongoing European migration should be EU-based and not Anglo-French bilateral. So much for Johnson’s demands.
Why Johnson would have wanted to sabotage the Calais meeting is a mystery. This suggests a complete lack of discipline or competence in Downing Street and, we have to assume, a collapse of the liaison with the Foreign Office, which would normally have considered such a letter and cannot have approved it. The Prime Minister’s obsession with his daily photographs and macho press releases is not a path to effective government, let alone during this kind of diplomatic stalemate.
Britain is moving towards an increasingly disadvantageous relationship with the rest of Europe, on migration as well as on other facets of the single market. Brexit didn’t, as Johnson boasted, made it stronger, but weakened it. This does not mean that it is ineffective. It remains a force on the European scene. But he needs friends and allies and needs to be careful.
Europe urgently needs to find a way forward in an era of persistent migration that does not respect national borders – as it is unlikely to end in the near future. Johnson is expected to suspend his emphasis on Brexit and join the EU to deal with this situation. He should be looking for solutions, not the headlines. In a little while, he particularly needs to find them in collusion with France. So what’s the point of being rude to Macron?