7 Jul 2024

‘No magic solution’ to stop small boats, says Former Ambassador to France

Europe Editor and Presenter

We spoke to Lord Peter Ricketts, who was British Ambassador to France from 2012 to 2016 and also served as Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the UK’s National Security Adviser.

We asked him what difference he thought the new Labour government could make on the issue of small boats crossing the Channel.

Peter Ricketts: The new government have made clear what they’re not going to do, which is the Rwanda policy. And they’ve made clear some process changes to put in place this border security command. But actually, what you do on the ground with the French, when they have a new government and have sorted out their own policy on immigration, it really comes down to what we’ve done for the last decade. Working with the French, cooperating with them, helping them to police the beaches by paying for the gendarmes, working upstream against the traffickers. I think there is no magic solution that hasn’t already been thought of and tried.

Matt Frei: But one, that policy hasn’t been working terribly well, and secondly, that depends very much on the colour of the government that’s being created in Paris as we speak.

Peter Ricketts: I think it does, yes. Because supposing the National Rally government, the populist right, come into power, their whole mantra is to cut down immigration. And yet cooperation with the Brits means keeping in France migrants who would much rather go to the UK. And that feels to me pretty counterintuitive for a populist right government.

Matt Frei: We’ve also seen David Lammy going to Berlin, he’s going to speak to the German foreign minister, the Polish foreign minister, the Swedish foreign minister. Again, there’s an impatience about this new government cosying up to the EU. But at the same time they said no customs union, no single market. What can this government actually do in terms of a reset with the EU that doesn’t involve breaking its campaign promises?

Peter Ricketts: I think reset with the EU probably comes in the second month of the government because they’ve got Nato and Ukraine. What you can do with the EU is a security pact, is working more closely with the EU on defence, foreign policy, security. Because most of that is down to the EU governments. It’s not treaty changes.

Matt Frei: And also sector by sector, certain industries, agriculture, veterinary stuff, import/export of certain goods, that’s something they said they would try and do. Again, to what extent does that rub up against European jurisdiction or the Europeans saying ‘This is the Brits yet again, trying to have their cake and eat it?’

Peter Ricketts: There will be suspicion in Brussels that we are cherry picking again. We are trying to improve bits that are of interest to us without necessarily tackling things that the EU would like to be better.

Matt Frei: Of course, the kind of EU that Remainers in this country were dreaming of rejoining once upon a time is changing quite rapidly. We had the rise of the far right, or the presence of the far right in Germany, with a very bitter coalition in France, obviously, with these elections. To what extent is the EU going to be changed by these political events, especially in Paris?

Peter Ricketts: It could be changed by that. I think the thing that will most change the EU is as they adapt towards taking Ukraine in as a member state. That’s clearly going to be a decade-long process. In the shorter term, yes, if there is a National Rally government in France, it’s going to have an agenda with the EU and I think actually it would quite suit them to have a big row with Brussels. I think they would think that would put up their chances of winning the really big prize in France, which is the presidential elections in 2027.

Matt Frei: So we saw Keir Starmer taking that call from President Biden on Air Force One. This is part of the ritual of the handover of power, and he’s going to see Biden, presumably, at the Nato summit. But there are two big questions here. Will it still be President Biden come 5 November or indeed the 6th, the day after the American election? And what about President Donald Trump? How’s that going to work out?

Peter Ricketts: He has to deal with the President Biden he’s got. The political relationship with a Trump White House would get much more difficult. I think he’d probably put us into the same basket as other European countries. And to my mind, that increases the reason for the UK to get closer to Europe. We might as well stick together and try and defend our interests together.

Matt Frei: But I wonder if we will be, because when you speak to people around a possible new Trump administration, they single out Britain, as a best friend, although they don’t mention the special relationship very much. We know what happens to Labour prime ministers when they get too close to the White House. There’s Tony Blair. Is there a danger here that Keir Starmer might be asked to make some impossible choices by a future President Trump?

Peter Ricketts: There could be some very difficult choices down the road, yes. Do we align with the Americans on China? What do we do if Trump tries to undermine Nato and sign a bilateral deal with Putin on Ukraine? That’s the kind of thing that I hope the Labour strategists are thinking about right now.

Matt Frei: Finally I’m told by someone very close to Donald Trump that Mr Trump is very impressed by the fact that Keir Starmer is Sir Keir. He loves the title.

Peter Ricketts: Well he ought to be quite impressed as well by the fact of his major victory. Politicians tend to be interested in why other democratic politicians get elected. Keir Starmer’s recipe for getting elected is very different to his. But Trump again has to deal with the British prime minister he’s got. So let’s make all that we can of the Sir part.