Macron visits the UK this week—but tensions over border controls could spoil the party

Long-running controversy over the Le Touquet Treaty, which effectively locates the UK border in Calais, has reignited

January 17, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Vandeville Eric/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Vandeville Eric/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

As French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in London for the 35th UK-France Summit and his first formal bilateral meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, all the talk has been of boosting Anglo-French cooperation, from post-Brexit trade to European defence. However, growing French discomfort with arrangements at the UK-France border could be a potential sticking point as both leaders meet—and a test-case for where, in very literal terms, the two countries stand in relation to each other as both sides seek to define a new strategic relationship in a post-Brexit world.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has added new urgency to an already fraught debate about border arrangements between the UK and France. These are not governed directly by membership of the EU, but rather through the bilateral Le Touquet Treaty signed in 2003. This agreement effectively relocates the UK border to Calais, as well as other key points of departure from France, such as Channel ports and the Eurostar terminal in Paris.

The arrangement has caused controversy within France, particularly in the Calais region, as migrants attempting to reach or claim asylum in the UK have been prevented from leaving French soil. This has led to the creation of improvised migrant camps. The most famous, the "Calais Jungle," was shut down by French authorities in October 2016, although this has not stopped migrants from coming back. The poor conditions in these camps continue to pose a significant humanitarian and security challenge for the French government.

There has also been growing disruption to freight and traffic flows through Calais. On 20th June 2017, the driver of a Polish-registered van was killed after it crashed into tree trunks that migrants had placed on a Calais road in an attempt to sneak on-board passing lorries entering the port. There have also been incidents of hijackings and violent attacks, with vehicles caught in tailbacks especially vulnerable to attempts by migrants to find dangerous hiding spots that will carry them past border controls.

Given this ongoing disruption, and the rhetoric coming from Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration National Front, tensions over Calais run high in regional and national politics. Although the Le Touquet Treaty is not formally dependent on the UK’s EU membership, a number of senior French politicians, including economy and interior ministers, have called for the treaty to be scrapped, scaled back, or adjusted to require more contributions from the UK after Brexit. While Macron also suggested that he would want to renegotiate the agreement during his presidential campaign in 2017, his tone has shifted towards asking the UK to contribute more to border security costs and take in more migrants, rather than abandoning the deal.

The Le Touquet Treaty allows either side to terminate the agreement with a two-year notice period. However, a unilateral termination is only likely to take place if wider diplomatic relations and security cooperation between the UK and France significantly soured. Any cancellation or re-negotiation of the treaty would have serious implications for the UK. It could lead to the controversial Calais migrant camps being relocated to British soil, or the creation of an asylum “hotspot” allowing migrants to lodge claims for both the UK and France.

This would clearly be a huge political challenge for May—who is already under pressure from Brexiteers in the Conservative Party after the disappointing election result last year—and her pledge to cut net migration to the UK to the tens of thousands. The desire to “take back control” of Britain’s borders and immigration policy was an important consideration for many Leave voters in the Brexit referendum.

Regardless of any changes to the Le Touquet Treaty, border arrangements between the UK and France will be directly affected by the UK’s departure from the EU. Existing measures are highly dependent on effective coordination and information sharing between border agencies, Kent Police and their French counterparts. Moreover, border checks draw on EU-wide intelligence mechanisms, including inputs from the Schengen Information System and Europol. Any disruption, but especially a “no deal” Brexit, could lead to significant security and border control challenges for the UK government.

In the run-up to their summit, both Macron and May appear willing to reaffirm commitment to the close relationship between the UK and France. However, the border might provoke serious debate over the coming days, with the two leaders under political pressure domestically to control their borders effectively and tackle immigration numbers.

Particularly after Brexit, the border issue risks becoming a "zero-sum game" if relationships sour and leaders in Paris or London compete to get a deal most favourable to national political audiences. In the UK, many voters opted for Brexit hoping to “take back control” over Britain’s borders. If a suitable bilateral solution to Calais cannot be found, Brexit may mean that those borders move a little closer to home.

Read RAND Europe’s report “Defence and Security after Brexit