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13th Apr 2024

EUobserved

UK-EU relations defrosting ahead of near-certain Labour win

  • UK home secretary James Cleverly and EU home affairs chief Ylva Johansson sign the deal between the UK and Frontex on Friday
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The gradual rapprochement between London and Brussels continues. On Friday (23 February), UK and EU officials formally signed an agreement between the UK and Frontex, the EU's border agency, that, if not a genuine deal on migration co-operation, can at least be sold as such.

Under the agreement, which was pre-announced earlier this week, the UK and Frontex will share intelligence, train officials together and post liaison staff to co-ordinate with each other.

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The pact "provides the basis for mutually beneficial cooperation," said the UK Home Office in a statement on Friday, ahead of the official signing with EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson and Frontex boss Hans Leijtens in London.

In a paper published on Friday, the UK Home Office said that practical examples of cooperation in the coming weeks could include working together on areas like analysing migratory flows across Europe or combatting document fraud.

Both sides have put a heavy spin on the pact.

The deal marked "another crucial step in tackling illegal migration, securing our borders and stopping the boats," said UK home secretary James Cleverly in a statement.

For her part, EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said that it will ensure "an integrated border management which is efficient, sustainable and in line with international standards and EU values."

It follows a similar border control arrangement with France in March 2023, while London is also close to agreeing a law enforcement and police co-operation pact with Belgium.

In truth, the new arrangement includes only the lowest-hanging fruit. Rishi Sunak's Conservative government has, unsurprisingly given the toxicity of debate on migration control in the UK, refused to include any bilateral returns agreement, meaning the UK will not have to take in any asylum seekers from EU member countries should the EU finalise its arrangement with migration quotas, with member states that refuse to take part instead paying €20,000 per migrant.

This includes the deal signed with France in March 2023, which more than doubles the number of French personnel deployed across northern France, providing cutting-edge technology, deepening law enforcement cooperation and enhancing intelligence-sharing.

In fact, though UK officials have enjoyed the EU's difficulties on migrant quotas, and their EU counterparts likewise the Sunak government's plans — initially blocked by the UK Supreme Court — to pay Rwanda to house several thousand asylum seekers while their claims are processed, the two sides have very similar approaches on migration control.

Two sides of same coin?

In December, EU lawmakers approved their own 'Rwanda' clause as part of the EU's revised migration and asylum framework that allows EU states to override the rules on what a 'safe' country is if an EU agreement has already been made with that country. That could include the EU's deals on migration control with Turkey and, potentially, Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania.

In terms of substance, that is very similar to the UK government's latest ruse to get past the Supreme Court veto by adopting a new law which states that the UK must "conclusively treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country" for asylum seekers, despite the Supreme Court's ruling to the contrary last November.

Having resolved their differences over the Northern Ireland protocol last year, the UK has joined the EU's Horizon Europe research programme and now cut a deal on migration.

After the years of mutual animosity between London and Brussels during Boris Johnson's premiership, and Liz Truss's disastrous 50-day turn as PM, Sunak has sought to gradually rebuild relations with the EU. The question, with the UK just months away from an election that opinion polls suggest Sunak's Conservative party is almost certain to lose, is whether and how this will continue under a Labour government.

The hopes of some in the UK and Brussels that a Labour government will quickly reverse the tide of more than a decade of euroscepticism are almost certain to be disappointed.

Though opinion polls consistently show a majority of Britons believe that Brexit was a mistake, they only show narrower majorities in favour on the question of rejoining the EU.

Besides, having been so badly burnt by its promise of a second referendum ahead of the 2019 election, when Labour leader Keir Starmer was the party's Brexit spokesperson, Labour officials are in no hurry to fundamentally re-open the UK's trade and political relationship with the EU or do anything that might lead to another referendum.

Labour's foreign affairs spokesperson David Lammy has promised to work on a foreign and defence policy pact with the EU.

That sense of caution is shared by European Commission officials who view the end-2025 date to review the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the UK as a technical requirement but not an opportunity to re-open it.

Picking low hanging fruit — like the UK-Frontex deal — is likely to be the path for at least the next few years.

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