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Sir Keir Starmer arrived in The Hague on Thursday vowing that a Labour government would work more closely with the EU in tackling clandestine migration, including striking a new “returns agreement” with the bloc.
But Conservatives claimed the “quid pro quo” of such a deal would see Britain taking in asylum seekers from other EU countries, including those who crossed the Mediterranean into Italy or Greece.
The Labour leader’s visit to the headquarters of Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, is a sign of his plans to build a closer post-Brexit relationship with Europe, including tackling cross-Channel migration.
Starmer, who is seeking to build his international profile, said he would also treat people smugglers like terrorists if he won power, freezing their assets and restricting their movement.
In an interview with The Times, Starmer confirmed Labour would overturn the new law that stops cross-Channel migrants claiming asylum in Britain. He said Conservative plans to deport people to Rwanda were inhumane.
In the long run, Starmer said he would try to strike a returns agreement with the EU for asylum seekers, adding that a “quid pro quo” of any deal could include accepting quotas of migrants from the EU.
“That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe,” he said. The Conservatives claimed that this would lead to Britain being required to take tens of thousands of asylum seekers from the EU, in exchange for returning cross-Channel migrants to the continent.
Starmer’s intention is to sound tough on migration — he said he wanted to “smash” people smuggling gangs — and he wants to use “serious crime orders” to freeze assets and restrict their movement.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow cabinet office minister, said Starmer would discuss at Europol “better real-time information sharing to track down criminal gangs” and the creation of a new cross-border policing unit.
Thomas-Symonds told the BBC that any reciprocal returns agreement would be the subject of negotiation but could focus on vulnerable children and reuniting families.
But the idea of a reciprocal returns agreement is likely to become a big feature of next year’s election. The Daily Mail, the Conservative-supporting newspaper, carried the Tories’ attack line on their front page on Thursday: “Labour is ready to open the door to the EU’s asylum seekers.”
A Conservative official said: “Finally, we get to see Sir Keir Starmer’s plan for illegal migration — he’ll make it legal.
“He’ll ignore the will of the British people to cut numbers, and instead cut a deal with the EU that would commit us to taking our ‘fair share’ of however many illegal migrants enter Europe each year. That number was nearly 1mn people last year and is projected to rise this year.”
Starmer is to embark on his biggest move on the world political stage in the coming days, attending a gathering of centre-left leaders in Canada this weekend and meeting French president Emmanuel Macron next week.