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European Union governments will refuse to negotiate an agreement to take back illegal migrants crossing the Channel to Britain if the UK does not back down in the Brexit trade talks, diplomats in Brussels warned on Wednesday.
Talks are deadlocked over fishing, the level playing field guarantees, the future role of the European Court of Justice and Britain’s refusal to promise to stay in the European Convention of Human Rights.
Britain will no longer be covered by the Dublin regulation once the Brexit transition period finishes at the end of the year. The EU law means an asylum seeker must claim asylum in the first EU country they arrive in.
British negotiators have put two replacement agreements on the table. One would allow the swift return of illegal migrants who have arrived in the UK from the EU. The other allows unaccompanied migrant children to be reunited with families in either the UK or EU.
EU diplomats warned that Brussels was under no obligation to negotiate the agreements because they were not part of Michel Barnier’s mandate or the Political Declaration setting out the goals of the negotiations.
They pointed out the EU had leverage over Britain on migration because more illegal migrants transited through the bloc with the goal of reaching the UK than vice versa.
“Turning the Channel into the Mediterranean might not be in most states’ interests,” one EU diplomat said, “but at this stage of the negotiations most member states do not see an immediate interest for the EU to discuss these issues.”
"Neither of these issues is covered by the EU mandate," an EU official said, "we have not engaged in discussions on these points as yet."
There has been a significant increase in migrants crossing the Channel in small boats due to the good weather and the impact of coronavirus on lorries, the Channel Tunnel and ferries.
By last Thursday, about 1,730 migrants had crossed the Channel from France this year compared to 1,890 in the whole of last year.
In May, the Government said it was planning new laws to force Channel migrants back to France and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, claimed the UK would be able to renegotiate Dublin with the EU.
“Given the asymmetry of the migration flow it is not at the top of member states’ minds,” the EU diplomat warned during the fourth round of tough trade negotiations, which are being held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This migration stuff seems to be a rather newish addition to the UK demand list,” another EU diplomat said, “and it is definitely not the kind of agreement that is part of any previous EU trade deal.”
At the end of the last frustrating round of talks, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, accused the UK of trying to preserve the benefits of EU membership without the obligations.
“We have presented the UK legal text on Asylum and Illegal Migration cooperation, and await a response from the EU on their willingness to reach an agreement in this area,” a British source said the day after officials discussed the issue.
The current round of negotiations, which end on Friday, are the last before Boris Johnson is expected to attend a June high level meeting with EU chiefs to evaluate the progress in the trade talks.
Unless a free trade agreement is finalised by January 1, or Mr Johnson breaks his promise to not extend transition, the UK and EU will be forced to trade on less lucrative WTO terms. July is the deadline for any extension of the transition period.
On Tuesday, the prime minister’s spokesman vowed there would be no British surrender over the issues of fishing and the level playing field guarantees on labour rights, tax, state aid and the environment.
EU sources had claimed the UK would fold once Brussels hinted it was willing to compromise on the major obstacles to a trade deal but this was dismissed as “wishful thinking” by Boris Johnson’s spokesman.
The European Commission says the level playing field guarantees are commitments to match EU standards to prevent unfair competition and are the price of a zero tariff, zero quota deal with a close market.
The UK argues the guarantees will prevent the UK from diverging from EU rules and are far more stringent than similar commitments in EU trade deals such as the agreements with Canada and Japan.
The EU wants a long term status quo fishing deal with reciprocal access to waters “under existing conditions” and has made it a condition of the trade deal.
Britain wants a Norway style fisheries agreement, which is separate to the trade deal with annual negotiations over access and fishing opportunities.