Rishi Sunak will on Thursday urge European leaders to put the migration crisis at the “top of the agenda” every time they meet as he continues to try and fulfil his promise to “stop the boats” crossing the Channel.
But the Prime Minister faces warnings that his efforts to boost European cooperation on asylum risk failing to deliver meaningful action unless the UK agrees to take in far more asylum seekers than even the tens of thousands of migrants that arrive on its shores now.
Mr Sunak will use the European Political Community (EPC) summit, seen by the UK as a means of engaging with the EU and neighbouring countries post-Brexit, to announce talks on an asylum-seeker returns agreement with hosts Moldova and an intelligence sharing deal with Bulgaria to disrupt people smuggling gangs at the bloc’s external border.
While these, along with a Georgia asylum seeker returns agreement that has now become operational and other deals with Albania and Rwanda, are important steps, they are seen as being unlikely to make the kind of difference that will prove decisive.
As an EU diplomat says: “The migration issue in the UK doesn’t concern Moldova, it concerns the EU.
“Whatever kind of action one wants to lead on within the EPC platform, you need to have on your side the EU.”
Mr Sunak appears to recognise this. Government briefings following his agreement with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in May for closer cooperation between UK agencies and Frontex, the EU border agency, suggested it could pave the way for cooperating on returns of asylum seekers, although it is not on the agenda for the EPC summit.
The idea of sharing the burden of huge numbers of asylum seekers is also dominating the conversation within the EU, with the likes of Italy and Greece calling on more northerly states to take more in to ease the huge pressure they are feeling.
The PM said on the eve of the EPC summit in Moldova: “We cannot address these problems without Europe’s governments and institutions working closely together.
“In every meeting, every summit, every international gathering like this, the security of our borders must be top of the agenda.”
However, experts say that any UK-EU returns deal, which would in theory allow Channel migrants to be returned to safe EU countries they have travelled through and break the model of people smugglers, was likely to come at a price.
Analysis of Eurostat data undertaken for i by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford showed that in 2022, the UK received 89,000 asylum applicants, a much lower number per head of population than many other EU nations, including France and Germany.
If the total number of asylum applicants in the UK and the EU+ in 2022 were divided evenly across the countries on a per-capita basis, the UK would have in fact received 137,000 applicants, the Observatory found.
Its deputy director Rob McNeil told i: “The idea that EU+ countries should cooperate to share the overall number of asylum seekers arriving in the region is not a new one.
“Any arrangement of this nature would be unlikely to result in the UK seeing a smaller number of asylum seekers.
“Were such a policy in the EU+ and the UK to be based on the populations of each country – as a proxy for available infrastructure and capacity – then the UK would be likely to see a sizeable increase in the number of asylum seekers it received.”
Anand Menon, director of the UK In A Changing Europe think-tank, also warns: “At a pan-European perspective, we are taking so many fewer than they are already, there is absolutely no sympathy for the UK position.”
The EPC will be Mr Sunak’s second European summit in a little over two weeks at which he has called for cooperation on the migration crisis, and his re-engagement is seen as a sign of a reset in relations with the EU following the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
But the EU diplomat i spoke to warns that any agreement struck between members states may not necessarily include the UK now it has left.
“First of all the EU needs to find some sort of mechanism internally that might work on burden sharing… then the question will be whether the EU wants to open it up to other countries which are not member states.”
Mr Sunak is likely to get a more positive reception on his calls to rewrite post-war international agreements like the UN Refugee Convention and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to update them for the modern age of mass migration.
However, the Prime Minister’s predictions that EU countries will begin to copy the UK’s hardline approach typified by the Rwanda deportation policy are likely to be proven wrong.
The EU diplomat said: “A lot of people agree with that (rewriting the conventions), they are old documents, the world has changed, it depends how you update it.
“The problem is: what solutions are you proposing?
“Nobody is looking at Rwanda as an example.
“They might like the rhetoric because you have right-wing governments across Europe, but they would never go for the Rwanda option – it’s illegal.”
Prof Menon adds: “Everyone has to show that they care because of public opinion but I don’t think the debate (in Europe) is anywhere near as advanced as it is here in terms of breaking the law and changing international agreements.
“They are still a long way away from us.”
He added: “I don’t think he’s going to come away (from the EPC) with a proper migration settlement of any kind.”