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The Touquet accord, signed in 2003, reinforced French-British cooperation on immigration, moving the British border to cross-channel embarkation areas in France and Belgium, such as ferry ports and the Eurostar.
The agreement allows London to offload some responsibility for border control to France and Belgium. It has been particularly sensitive in the Calais area of northern France where there are at least two huge migrant camps.
Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region, where Calais and Dunkirk are located, is among the French politicians calling for a renegotiation of the Touquet accord after Brexit. He couldn’t have picked a better moment.
“The British people have decided, [so] I ask the French government to renegotiate the Touquet accord,” Bertrand wrote on Twitter the day after the referendum.
According to Bertrand, the Touquet accord has forced the French to manage the intense pressure caused in recent years by migrants trying to reach Britain from northern France. Because of the border controls in Calais, huge camps of thousands of migrants have cropped up in Bertrand’s backyard, notably the Calais “jungle” and Grande-Synthe.
If Brexit leads to the end of the Touquet accord, France would no longer be responsible for preventing migrants making the illegal channel crossing to southern England.
‘The accord is broken’
Bertrand has long opposed the Touquet accord, and since the Brexit vote he’s won support from other French politicians, including Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart.
“The border needs to return to England,” Bouchart said on June 24. “The British wanted to leave the EU. I regret their decision but I respect it. They have to accept all the economic and migratory consequences.”
Others calling for a renegotiation of the Touquet accord include Karima Delli, one of France’s Green deputies in the European Parliament, and conservative presidential hopeful François Fillon.
“The accord is broken, so we need to re-examine Le Touquet, of course,” Fillon said on Europe 1 on June 26.
The French government may also be reconsidering the Touquet accord. Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron warned London in March that a British exit from the EU could have grave consequences for the immigration issue.
“The day that French-British relations are broken, the immigrants will be out of Calais,” Macron said.
Even the British government tried to put out a warning about Brexit’s effect on the Touquet accord.
“The point here is that if that’s called into question and those controls cease to exist, then you have potentially thousands of asylum seekers camped out in northern France who could be here almost overnight,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron told the Telegraph in February.
‘We’ll need to have a boat’
For the moment though, that is only a theoretical threat. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said during a cabinet meeting on June 24 that “on the question of immigration … The UK’s exit from the European Union does not create changes in terms of treaties”.
The European Union and Brexit have nothing to do with Le Touquet, which is a bilateral agreement, Cazeneuve argued. Questioning the treaty would simply “send a message to human traffickers that they are justified in putting all the migrants at the border so that they can get them across”, Cazeneuve said in March. If that happens, Cazeneuve warned, the population of the “jungle” could triple.
France is also afraid that moving the border to Dover will encourage migrants to risk a dangerous sea crossing, creating the same tragedies in the English Channel as seen in the Mediterranean. Up to 3,771 people drowned in 2015 while trying to reach Europe by sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told AFP last week that if the border is moved to England “we’ll need to have boats ready to save people”.
“Brexit is a real threat,” Philippe de Bruycker, a professor specialising in immigration at the Université libre de Bruxelles, told FRANCE 24. “It’s true that there isn’t a direct link from a legal point of view between Brexit and the Touquet accord … But can this agreement – which is like a present from France to its European partner [Britain] – really be maintained if the UK is no longer European?”