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Migrants move towards the Belarus-Poland border in November. Picture: REUTERS/BEITA/OKSANA MANCHUK
Migrants move towards the Belarus-Poland border in November. Picture: REUTERS/BEITA/OKSANA MANCHUK

It’s now been two weeks since a group of 27 migrants died trying to reach the UK from France when their boat sank in the English Channel. Far from uniting to confront a shared crisis, both countries have spent the interim shifting blame, trading insults and ignoring needed reforms. If the next tragedy is to be prevented, sanity needs to quickly prevail.

After the deaths on November 24, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent French President Emmanuel Macron a letter — with further commentary on Twitter — declaring, among other things, that migrants reaching the UK from France were France’s responsibility and should be swiftly taken back. Macron took offence at both style and substance, and withdrew an invitation to a British official to join talks on the issue. French ministers then declared migration “first and foremost an English issue” and accused Britain of tolerating “quasi-modern slavery”.

Invective aside, the quarrel merges two reinforcing failures.

The first is the lack of an effective joint policy on migrants between the EU and its neighbours. The so-called Dublin Regulation (which, post-Brexit, no longer binds the UK) assigns the processing of asylum applications to the country of first arrival. But the EU still hasn’t built a system to make this stipulation work — one that equitably shares the costs of protecting the borders and accepting qualified migrants.

Britain is no longer a member of the EU but says it wants to be a partner nonetheless. In that case, it should play a full part in efforts to meet the challenge. EU ministers say they want to strike a deal, and the UK should want the same. The starting point for negotiations can’t be, “It’s nothing to do with us.”

The second failure is the apparent determination, on both sides, to make Brexit an even bigger mess than it needs to be. Britain’s decision to quit the EU was a grave error from the start, but the two sides can still choose, as a matter of long-term mutual interest, to make the best of it — or, as a matter of short-term political expediency, to make things worse. Sadly, the recent posturing by Johnson and Macron suggests they both prefer the latter. They seem to agree there’s no middle way between full EU membership, with all of its obligations and privileges, and standing entirely apart. That isn’t how a pragmatic alliance should work.

Coping with migrants is only one of many areas where the UK and the EU need to collaborate more closely. The sooner the two sides come to see this, the better.

Bloomberg. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion


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