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Controlling Britain’s Borders. Sir Keir Starmer Rolls the Dice 

Controlling Britain’s BordersSir Keir Starmer Rolls the Dice 

As he sets out his stall for next year’s polls, the Labour leader promises to water down the small boats Act under which asylum claims are banned and those entering illegally removed to Rwanda. Instead, he intends to work with the EU on a quid pro quo basis for asylum. But, says Politeia’s Research Director, Sheila Lawlor, with millions on the move, Sir Keir fails to understand the problems that confront today’s Britain no less than her European neighbours. Will the voters trust him to control their country’s borders?  

Keir Starmer’s recent attempt, as Labour leader, to forge his party’s election policy on the EU has an air of déjà vu.  As Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow for Europe he championed a second referendum under Labour with the intention of ditching Brexit to remain, one way or other in or  partially in the EU. Now, as he limbers up for Labour’s party conference, Starmer has been connecting with the deal makers of Europe. In the Hague he wanted immigration tackled via an agreement with the EU and a crackdown on people smugglers. For his Paris tête à tête with Emmanuel Macron, he spoke of a better relationship, a better trade deal with the EU if he wins next year at the polls. Closeted with the French leader in the Elysée Palace for ‘private talks’, he elaborated, these were ‘highly political’.

Lawyer that he is, Sir Keir says little – very little on the record and nothing ‘political’.  He gives the papers some headline news but generally not enough to fill a column, and certainly nothing by which he can be caught out. There is also the judicious placing of interviews. From the aptly named ‘pink’ paper, The Financial Times, we learn he intends, not a ‘revision’ of our trade deal with the EU, but a better deal, Boris Johnson’s being ‘thin’.  Meanwhile, as he explained to other outlets (the BBC and The Times), he may be willing to accept a quota of migrants in the UK in exchange for a returns deal with the EU, but would not give a number.  ‘That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe’, he  explained. Opponents warn that such a deal would mean the UK taking a quota of EU asylum seekers in the region of 120,000.

Starmer is a human rights lawyer – a branch of law which draws on the European Convention of Human Rights in order to challenge the laws made in Westminster, and in the case of the ‘small boats’ bill, to obstruct its navigation through Parliament. There Labour trailed its plan of a ‘better way’ of dealing with migration through agreements with our European partners, judiciously leaving it to the human rights lawyers to use the courts to trump parliament. Now we await the outcome of a further legal challenge to the bill which reaches the Supreme Court next month. If the government wins its case, illegal migrants, who will be banned under the Act from seeking asylum in this country, will be removed to Rwanda or another safe country.

Though the bien pensants sought to emasculate the bill in parliament and stop it through the courts, the British people are not alone in wanting to tackle the unprecedented levels of migration. In our nearest neighbours the same concerns rage. Immigration has come to dominate the politics of Germany, Italy and France.

Italy cannot cope with the thousands of migrants who reach its shores daily from North Africa, despite an EU-Tunisia deal. 11,000 reached the small island of Lampedusa over two days last week. The Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, who has led the battle in the EU to tackle the problem, took the unprecedented step of refusing entry last year to a ship carrying migrants, which was diverted to France, prompting a Franco-Italian stand-off.  Meanwhile Germany, according to its President, Franz-Walter-Steinmeier has, like Italy, ‘reached the limit of what it can bear’, while even the German Greens are demanding greater controls.  In France, the beleaguered Emmanuel Macron, without a parliamentary majority, hopes an all-party programme which includes controlling immigration will do the trick. France shares a border with Italy in the South East, where national security forces patrol the border. This month the French buried the hatchet with Italy as the interior minister went to Lampedusa, while the EU’s Ursula von den Leyen followed suit, and promised Meloni the bloc would work together with Italy.

EU countries therefore would heave a sigh of relief if Sir Keir were to help them out by accepting ‘his’ quota of EU asylum seekers. But given the costs and the figures, is there any likelihood that this will be a vote winner?

UK asylum applicant numbers have mushroomed, along with those of other sorts of migration. Last year (ending June 2022) around 63,000 asylum applications were made for 75,181 people, the highest number for decades. Of these around 66 per cent are successful. The costs to Britain’s taxpayers are high. People in the asylum system who are destitute are entitled to a level of support, e.g., accommodation, subsistence (cash support) or both. The figures for end March last year show that 85,00 individuals received support – 39 per cent more than that for the previous March.  Of these almost all (95 per cent) received both accommodation and subsistence. The British are welcoming to those fleeing persecution and torture at home. But times have changed since the heady post-world war days of the early 1950s when human rights lawyers sought to put the world of the dictators to rights with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention. The numbers and costs were then far, far lower.

Sir Keir may have been taking a punt on whether he can stop the channel migrants at source.  But in doing so he must reckon with the voters. Do they want him to stop the removal to Rwanda of illegal migrants who claim asylum? And do they want what he termed a ‘quid pro quo’ deal with the EU which could demand the UK accepts quotas of migrants.

The reality is that as Sir Keir fights the battles of the old, cold war world, mainstream opinion – at home and in Europe – is confronting the very real concerns of the new.

Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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