July 31, 2015

Will the Channel Tunnel Divide or Unite Us?

Reuters/Scanpix
A high-speed Eurostar train exits the Channel tunnel in Coquelles, near Calais, May 5, 2014. Eurotunnel prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel. The Channel Tunnel or Euro Tunnel took six years to construct and was opened in 1994.
A high-speed Eurostar train exits the Channel tunnel in Coquelles, near Calais, May 5, 2014. Eurotunnel prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel. The Channel Tunnel or Euro Tunnel took six years to construct and was opened in 1994.

When British and French leaders opened the Chunnel under the English Channel in 1994, there was much high-flown oratory. The Queen spoke in French, calling the tunnel a long-lasting connection between the United Kingdom and France

What has become of the connection today is that Britain is offering France about 10 million euros to build a new fence in Calais after a single day when migrants at a camp in the French city made about 2,000 attempts to enter the Eurotunnel. French police say yet another 1,500 attempts were made the next night, during which one Sudanese migrant died after being hit by a truck.

The UK has already paid about five million euros to install barriers on the French side of the Eurotunnel. The tunnel operator, Groupe Eurotunnel SE, wants millions of euros more as compensation because the migrants are disrupting the normal flow of traffic.

In short, new fences, barriers and walls are going up in Europe. Hungary, too, is already building a fence, perhaps a wall, on its border with Serbia; and now France is doing the same in its region. And video footage does indeed show how migrants are trying to push their way on to the trucks and keeping others from entering the tunnel.

But let’s ask ourselves why the migrants want to get to the UK in the first place. Why don’t they stay in France, or move on to some other country on the Continent that would be easier to reach than the UK through a tunnel?

The answer is that unlike France or Germany, migrants automatically receive asylum seeker status upon reaching the UK. Migrants are given food, shelter and even some money, for as long as their case is reviewed.

After six months, migrants can apply for a work permit. But they can also work there quite successfully without a permit, and the percentage of the shadow economy is several times higher that of France. Employers who hire illegal immigrants don’t face penalties in the UK.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the lack of a national ID card requirement is also a big draw alongside the better treatment migrants tend to receive in the UK. In the UK, you can’t be asked for a document on the street unless there is probable cause to suspect you of a crime. In France, on the other hand, migrants mostly have to find their own housing, and without an ID card, there is essentially nothing they can do.

Years ago, France expressed hope that British would take action to make their laws less attractive for migrants, but as we can see from the events in late July the migrants keep on clamouring behind the door of misty Albion.

Perhaps this is the crux of the whole migrant problem: namely, that the EU lacks uniform rules on migrants. One could make the counterargument that resolving the migrant question at the EU level would violate the member states’ sovereignty. But the reality is that right now, some member states are going it alone and cannot count on assistance from the European Union. A more uniform system would do much to reduce the concentration of migrants in certain places and defuse tensions between member states. Yet the passage of rules on the EU level is still ahead of us, and for now, we will continue to see migrants clamouring at the mouth of the Chunnel.

This piece, originally in Estonian, aired on Retro FM’s European news on 31 July 2015.

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