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Twenty years of Franco-British border agreements

This month marks twenty years since the signing of one of the most significant Franco-British treaties in the last 50 years, the Le Touquet treaty. Whilst Le Touquet, a seaside town on the northern French coast one hour from Calais, may conjure images of calm beaches where Macron escapes Paris with his wife to holiday, it is also the site of one of the most insidiously shady instruments of British bordering, one which confoundingly remains relatively untouched by British lawyers, policy experts and campaigners alike.


On 4 February 2003, the then British Home Secretary David Blunkett and French President Nicolas Sarkozy sat down in the seaside resort of Le Touquet to sign an agreement that is widely considered to be at the source of the continuing political crisis we now see playing out in the English Channel, to which people on the move are subjected. The agreement, not the first of its kind (being preceded by the 1986 Treaty of Canterbury, the 1991 Sangatte Protocol and the 2000 Additional Sangatte Protocol) but certainly the boldest, allowed for the externalisation of British passport checks and border and customs controls into France. If you search for the treaty online you’ll be disappointed as it remains unpublished by the British government, but you can find it in a 2006 UN treaty series list at page 178.

The Le Touquet treaty exports powers of arrest and detention, practised mainlyin the now four British Short-Term Holding Facilities on French soil. At the same time, Article 9 of the agreement specifically prevents people from being able to make an asylum claim to UK authorities at the border point, despite extraterritorial control being wielded in the UK ‘control zones’.

This means that people on the move wishing to reach the border to claim asylum, as they would in theory have the right to do at any regular border point, find themselves literally blocked in Calais, confronted by UK armed police (a sister treaty signed the same day allows officers to carryfirearms on French soil). As a result, people cannot simply arrive at the border but must instead find a way to enter British soil in order to claim asylum, with no option other than hiding in a train, jumping on a lorry or crossing in a small boat.

Whilst this externalisation began in the form of border checks abroad, the British soon started to pressure for “co-management” of the border. The 2010 Joint Declaration on Immigration was the first agreement that formalised joint border policing and surveillance missions.

The Touquet treaty has gone hand in hand with ever-increasing British-operated and funded security, surveillance and policing across the northern France border region. Since 1998, €1.28 billion (£1.44 billion) have been spent on enforcing the UK-France border. This has gradually spread further and further afield, with externalised British border controls operating in Dunkirk, Lille, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam under subsequent bilateral treaties, as illustrated in Figure 1 of this ICIBI 2022 report. The most recent joint initiative allows, for the first time, British policemen to accompany French forces patrolling the beaches, rendering them directly complicit in police missions known for their frequent acts of violence. The upcoming Franco-British Summit on 10 March, the first in five years, is expected to include more of the same.

The question that experts still struggle to answer, however, is: Why did the French accept to do our bordering for us?

Is there financial incentive?

The UK has committed over £232 million to France since 2014 for the “management” of the shared border, although as a parliamentary briefing [JL1] on the topic notes the undisclosed official figure is likely to be much higher. This money has been destined at anything from a doubling in the deployment of French police missions, to reception centres aimed at removing people from the coastline, to “joint return flights to countries of origin”. Are we paying France to carry out their domestic anti-migrant measures?

Given that the financial cost to the French government is estimated at more like three times what the UK gives them according to this recently translated report (£643 million between 2012-2017), and the reputational stain of the ongoing situation for people stuck at the border has cost successive French governments dearly, is the neo-colonial relationship of “we give you the money, you do our dirty work” really a motivating one? President Macron, who revels in political muscle flexing on the global stage, would hardly be keen for it to be seen so.

No jungle, at all costs

Whilst the French may seem to get a bad political and financial deal from these agreements, the ultimate aim – to reduce the number (or at least just the visibility) of people undertaking crossings – is one that France shares.

Successive French presidents have made it their campaign pledge to end “points of fixation” on the northern coastline, wanting to be seen as the one to really “solve” the “problem” of Calais. This currently takes the form of regular police evictions of camps or temporary living sites, destruction of people’s personal belongings and attempted dispersal of people in buses across the region to try and remove them from the more visible coastline camp areas.

Fearful of being seen to fail, French governments have likely been committed to hostile external bordering regardless of UK pressure – but when there’s some extra money offered, why say no? Indeed, when UK cooperation seemed to be faltering post-Brexit, the French called for the intervention of Frontex who now operate an EU-funded drone over the Channel; not to prevent displaced people from arriving in the Schengen area, as it does elsewhere, but ironically to prevent them from leaving it.

The problem is that the number of people still in the region to attempt some form of Channel crossing has not reduced. And at least 364 people have died at the border since 1999. Neither government can credibly be said to be “managing” well, and at high human cost.

A “strategic” geopolitical alliance

But migration isn’t all. When you look further at the plethora of bilateral border agreements, many have been written in the context of broader joint summits on counter-terrorism, security and defence and arms cooperation.

The 2010 border “co-management” agreement came out of the Lancaster House Treaties, where the two countries agreed on joint military operations in Libya and the joint simulation of nuclear tests. The 2018 Sandhurst Treaty on further securitisation of the border was also one among many, including committing “support to French military operations in Africa”, which involved sending three UK Chinook heavy lift helicopters to Mali, and joint strategic “anti-terrorism” communications campaigns to counter “the evolving global threat from Daesh propaganda”.

Whilst France may seem to be the side left worse off in both finances and power in the combined governmental failure to consider any solution other than increased securitisation, it certainly gains from the boosted military and diplomatic might that comes in tandem. The upcoming Joint Summit in March, for which one of the main agenda topics raised so far has been defence cooperation, is likely to be no different. Despite hyper-mediatisation, are people on the move merely a pawn in a wider set of geopolitical concerns?

If there is anything that the Treaty of Le Touquet can teach us, it is that simply securitising a border and circumventing the right to seek asylum do not work – neither in preventing dangerous crossings nor in making governments look good. Instead, women, men and children hoping to seek asylum in the UK have been subject to increasingly inhumane living conditions and often fatal journeys, all in the name of “dissuasion” – the UK’s own hostile environment in France.

Franco-British cooperation is certainly needed for this to change. Not in the shape of shared military helicopters and media-grabbing headlines, but instead with genuinely shared responsibility and policies shaped by the experiences of those subject to them.

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Frances Timberlake

Frances Timberlake has worked since 2016 on policy analysis, advocacy and community organising relating to the UK-France border. She formerly worked as the UK Research and Policy Co-ordinator for Refugee Rights Europe where she co-founded the now independent UK-France-Belgium Crossborder Forum. She currently works at the European Network on Statelessness. The views expressed here are her own.