“If we can get this deal in Europe, if we can this renegotiation fixed and we can stay in a reformed Europe, you know what you get… you know that the borders stay in Calais.”
David Cameron, 8 February 2016
Could the kind of squalid migrant camps we see on the outskirts of Calais become a familiar sight in southern England?
That is the suggestion from David Cameron, who is warning that a British exit from the EU could end the current system of border checks being carried out on the French side the Channel instead of at Dover.
The Prime Minister thinks Brexit would give French politicians an excuse to tear up “the excellent agreement we have with France”.
As a result, Britain would end up taking in 50,000 more asylum seekers a year, according to a Telegraph headline.
Eurosceptics have been queuing up to denounce the story as scaremongering put out by Number 10. Are they right?
What happens now?
Britain, France and Belgium operate a system of “juxtaposed controls”, which means immigration checks on cross-Channel routes are done at the point of departure, not arrival.
So if someone is trying to get from Calais to Dover and they don’t have the right documents, they ought to get stopped in France.
This policy has been blamed for the phenomenon of thousands of migrants who aspire to come to the UK languishing in unsanitary camps near Calais.
The people in the camps cannot claim asylum in the UK until they reach UK soil.
In the case of sea crossings, the system is set out in the so-called Le Touquet Treaty between Britain and France (its real name is much longer and more boring).
If they don’t want to claim asylum in France and insist on trying to make a life in the UK, their only option is to try to cross the Channel illegally, then make a claim.
Has the current arrangement worked for the UK?
The claim that 50,000 more asylum seekers could come to Britain if the current system is changed comes from Rob Whiteman, a former chief executive of the UK Border Agency.
In a BBC Radio 4 interview, Mr Whiteman said: “Before that treaty was put in place asylum claims were running at 80,000 a year in the UK. They are now running at about 30,000 a year so we would probably see, let’s say, another 50,000 asylum claims a year which we used to get before the treaty came in.”
It’s absolutely true to say that asylum claims fell by roughly that amount in the mid-2000s, though it’s not completely clear that the Le Touquet Treaty is solely responsible for this.
There was a global fall in asylum applications to developed world countries around that time anyway, as well as other changes brought in by the British government.
Nevertheless, no one would say Britain does not benefit from the current arrangements. At the height of the Calais crisis last summer, the British government was very keen for them to continue, and spent millions on extra security measures in the area after meetings with French officials.
Will the French cancel the arrangement?
Although the Le Touquet deal is reciprocal – it theoretically protects France from some unwanted migration from Britain – we’re seeing mostly one-way traffic at the moment, and some French politicians are calling for the agreement to be scrapped.
This is really the crux of Mr Cameron’s argument. He thinks Brexit would enrage French critics and give them even more reason to want to cancel the border deal.
Philippe Mignonet, deputy mayor of Calais, and former minister Xavier Bertrand have both called for the border to be pushed back to Dover. But neither of those men has the power to cancel the treaty.
France’s interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, hinted in an interview that agreements like Le Touquet could come under pressure if Britain left the EU, but he also specifically ruled out cancelling it himself.
Mr Cazeneuve told the Telegraph: “It is obvious that leaving the EU will always result in countermeasures.”
But he added: “Calling for the border with the English to be opened is not a responsible solution… it is a foolhardy path, and one the government will not pursue.”
There doesn’t appear to be any terrible legal or practical difficulty in cancelling the Le Touquet Treaty. The last paragraph states that either party can end it whenever they like simply by giving the other party two years’ notice in writing:
But remember that Le Touquet only covers sea-crossings. The same get-out clause does not apply in the arrangements that cover trains coming through the Channel Tunnel, so it may be harder legally for the French to untangle themselves from these.
What does the agreement have to do with the EU?
Nothing. Le Touquet is a bi-lateral agreement between Britain and France.
The only danger, as set out by Mr Cameron and perhaps partly confirmed by Mr Cazeneuve, is that there would be a lack of political goodwill from France if Britain pulled out from Europe.
Professor Steve Peers from Essex University told us: “The departure of the UK from the EU changes nothing legally – the issue is whether it might be politically more likely to happen if the UK left. Or perhaps the threat would be implicit during the negotiations for post-Brexit treaties.
On the other hand, as Professor Bernard Ryan from the University of Leicester told us: “Britain could stay in the EU and France could decide that they have had enough of this arrangement.”
Would we actually see Jungle-style camps in England?
Professor Ryan also points out that, while we might see a surge of immigration to Britain if Le Touquet was scrapped, this is unlikely to lead to people actually camping out in woodland in Kent.
Once the migrants got to Britain, many would claim asylum, and so would end up being processed by the immigration authorities.
People would be offered accommodation while their asylum claims were processed, while others could end up in detention centres awaiting deportation.
Of course it’s possible that the immigration system would struggle to deal with a sudden influx of new claimants, but there’s no reason why people would end up sleeping rough on the outskirts of English towns.
Eurosceptics would like to dismiss Mr Cameron’s comments as scaremongering, but it’s hard to prove the Prime Minister wrong on what how French politicians would react to Brexit, because he is making a prediction.
We do think Mr Cameron failed the FactCheck test today when he said that staying in a reformed Europe would mean that “you know that the borders stay in Calais”.
The suggestion that the current border arrangements with France would be guaranteed by a “remain” vote in the EU referendum is wrong.
The fact that the UK border is at Calais rests on a treaty that has nothing to do with the EU, and there is nothing to stop French politicians from cancelling the deal even if Britain stays inside Europe.
[Update: this blog was amended on 9 February. We originally said: “People granted asylum would be offered accommodation”. We meant to say that people applying for asylum would be offered somewhere to live. We’re grateful to the Refugee Council for spotting this error.]