A Channel Plan for London, Berlin and Copenhagen

5 July 2024
Keir Starmer. Photo: flickr / Number10
Keir Starmer. Photo: flickr / Number10

The full version of this paper is available in PDF format

Since early 2019, 125,000 migrants have made the Channel crossing from the EU to the UK. In the first half of 2024, over 13,000 have made the crossing. This is a record for this period. If crossings continue like this, it will be many more than 30,000 by the end of 2024.

Standing on the cliffs above Dover, with the Channel stretching out behind him, shortly before the UK election was called, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told an interviewer in May 2024:

“We shouldn’t have people crossing in small boats and arriving in this country. It’s a dangerous perilous journey. It’s a complete loss of control of the borders. It allows the gangs to determine who’s coming to the UK …  I want, like everybody else, to end this vile trade.”

The same day, announcing Labour’s plans for addressing small boat crossings, he stressed:

“Nobody, but nobody should be making that perilous journey. It’s not in anybody’s interest and nobody who’s serious about politics should suggest otherwise. It is not progressive or compassionate to allow people to cross in that way and to lose control of our borders, so we need to bring those numbers down drastically. The question is how we do it.

His answer then, as leader of the opposition, was: Not like the Conservatives. Now, following his resounding victory in yesterday’s UK elections, prime minister Starmer will need to be more concrete. His government will need to show that it has a strategy that can bring those numbers down dramatically. That it can end “this vile trade.“

This is in fact a huge opportunity for a Labour government to address an issue that British voters have consistently wanted tackled, to do so early in its term, to remove a toxic issue from the agenda, and to do so in line with its values and electoral promises, which include respect for the European Convention on Human Rights. To succeed, the new UK government will need unprecedented cooperation with European partners. Starmer recognised this in already in November 2023, when he suggested that a Labour government would seek a returns agreement with the EU, including a “quid-pro-quo” whereby the UK would also take some asylum seekers from the EU.

This paper sets out how such a returns agreement could work, and why it would be in the interest of Starmers’ new government, European partners and indeed anyone in favour of strengthening public support for human rights and refugee conventions currently under attack from populists and the far-right. The far-right claims that only violence and suspending respect for human rights conventions can stop irregular migration. It would be invaluable to centrists and democrats everywhere to prove that the opposite is true, and to do so now.

In this policy paper, we argue five things:

First, we argue that an innovative cooperation agreement would be able to stop all crossings quickly. We show what such an agreement might look concretely, and what is required for its successful implementation.

Second, we argue that such cooperation would be in the vital interest of any EU government that is worried about controlling irregular migration without violating human rights conventions. This includes Germany and Denmark – hence the two capitals in the title of this report. However, at this stage it includes a clear majority of EU member states. We propose that some of these form a coalition of the willing to negotiate with the UK on such migration cooperation as soon as possible.

This coalition of the willing would obviously benefit if it would include France from the very outset. However, this proposal and the breakthrough it is supposed to bring is not dependent on the next French government participating from the very outset.

Third, we argue that the legal resettlement component of such an agreement – the UK offering legal routes from the EU to the UK - is vital to its success, practically and politically. It also points the way to a paradigm shift in the debate on irregular migration and refugee protection.

Fourth, we argue that the various policies of deterrence and interception that have already been tried since 2019 to reduce Channel crossings, policies that have often been expensive and that have until now consistently failed, are bound to continue to fail, if pursued by a Labour government. It is not in the interest of the UK or the EU for this to continue.

Finally, we argue that this Channel Plan is not only a win-win for the participating governments but should also be strongly supported by anyone in civil society who cares about humane migration policies. This includes anyone with an interest in refugee protection, including UNHCR and refugee rights activists. It would be a win-win-win-win, as it would also benefit asylum seekers.