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UK, a maritime power

Illegal Immigration

The issue in the British Channel

The English Channel: The English Channel, also known as simply the Channel is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates Southern England from northern France.

Characteristics of the Channel

– It is one of the busiest in the world (more than 400 commercial ships use it every day).

– the weather conditions are often difficult with very cold waters for a large part of the year.

– lockdown of the port of Calais on the French side and the Channel Tunnel.

The UK is not the Eldorado

– Exiles take incredible risks and put their lives in danger to reach this ‘’Land of Dreams’’

– In Calais, they live in undignified conditions.

– British labor laws regularize very few immigrants.

– Undocumented workforce is condemned to be exploited on the British labor market.

Evolution of the immigration across the Channel

The new trend to cross the Channel

– The smugglers provide exiles with small makeshift boats (= embarcations de fortune).

– Each place is sold at a high price.

– The trend has accelerated with 8,500 crossings in 2020, 28,000 in 2021 and nearly 41,000 in 2022 with numerous casualties (= victims) at sea. Other sources say that 45,756 migrants crossed the English Channel illegally to reach the United Kingdom during 2022. It is almost twice as much as the previous year.

So many people are crossing the Channel that the figures cannot be accurate.

Two examples of tragedies at sea:

– 166 migrants, who were trying to reach England in makeshift boats, were rescued at sea during the night of December 16 to 17 2022.

– the sinking of an inflatable boat carrying dozens of Afghans and Senegalese in December 2022.

Impact of the problem on France

The migration crisis has been going on in Calais for more than twenty years because successive British governments have not managed to solve the problem for lack of legislation adapted to this massive immigration.

The solution the Mayor of Calais offers in France: detention centers on the French territory far from the border to take care and examine the situation of the exiles.

She believes that the British government should take its responsibilities by changing its own legislation to make the country less attractive and to fight against the hidden labor market that creates this uncontrollable situation.

Impact of the problem on the relationships between France and Great Britain

– This has been a regular source of tension between Paris and London for several years.

– Agreements have been signed over the years to regulate if not settle the situation but up to now they have all failed.

Summary of the latest agreement signed on November 14, 2022

– The British will have to pay 72.2 million euros in 2022-2023 in return for a 40 % increase of the French security forces patrolling the beaches of the north of France.

– Both countries will deploy « technological and human resources », including drones, on the French coastline to better detect, monitor and intercept boats.

– Teams of observers on both sides of the Channel will collect and use information given by intercepted migrants to dismantle smuggling networks and deter crossings .

– They will work with the countries of origin and transit of the immigrants.

– Detection dogs and surveillance cameras will be set up along the coast.

– Centers for migrants are also to be created in the south of France to dissuade migrants travelling across the Mediterranean to Calais and to « offer them safe alternatives ».

The British are not completely satisfied with the agreement; they wished both countries had agreed on a number of illegal boats to intercept.

Agreements with other countries:

– Agreement between UK and Rwuanda to send back illegally arrived migrants (from any country) without waiting for their asylum applications to be examined, which was highly criticized for threatening human rights

– Cooperation agreements with Albania, whose nationals have arrived in large numbers this year.

How France and the UK react to the problem at sea

Involvement of the French Navy : ships of the French Navy and ships chartered by the French government patrol the area, recover the survivors of shipwrecks (= naufrage) and bring them back to the port of Calais or Boulogne sur mer.

– Involvement of the Bristish Navy which commands the Border Force.

– The victims are often saved by fishing boats both French and British.

The present controversy in the UK

– With Brexit, the British Conservatives had promised to « take back control » of the borders.

– An illegal immigration bill aimed at fighting the sharp rise in migrant arrivals has been drafted (= élaborer)

In favour of the bill

Against the bill

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

– British Home Secretary who said that  »Britons have had enough…It is not racist to say we have too many illegal immigrants abusing our asylum system. »

– Conservative MPs have called for BBC sanctions against Gary Lineker

– Individual people like former footballer Gary Lineker, now a star presenter for the BBC, who compared what is being proposed with Nazi Germany.

– Refugee aid associations, who believe it is contrary to international law.

– The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who has accused the government of wanting to « put an end to the right of asylum » in the country.


Doc.2 : The proximity with the « GIUK Gap »

The GIUK Gap is categorised as a strategic transit route, the gap stretches in the open ocean between three landmasses (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom). It was vital to Europe’s maritime defence during the Cold war.

Nowadays, with the surge in Russian military power, the GIUP Gap has taken a new meaning again for NATO and the rest of the world, in the military field.

Recap documents 1 to 4

The UK is an insular country, made out of two main islands (the Great Britain one being the most important in Europe) and thousands of little ones. It has 12 400 km of sea coasts (while France only has 3400 km).

This gives the UK a maritime openness and an access to several seas : the Atlantic Ocean, the Channel, the Irish sea and the North sea.

The UK maritime territory is also a key space for two « choking points » in the field of the maritime flows between Northern Europe and the Atlantic Ocean :

– the region which is called the Pas-de-Calais (or Dover Straits)

– the GIUK Gap, a maritime road between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom, which is the main road for the Russian or the Chinese ships coming from or to the Artic Ocean.

There also are 14 British Overseas territories, on 6 seas (including 4 oceans). It gives the UK more than 6.8 million km², which is the 5th largest EEZ in the world and which is out of proportion to the onshore British territory (245 000 km²).

Issue : How has sea been a major component of the British power ? How is this maritime power being challenged nowadays ?

I. The underpinnings of the British maritime power

A. The historical reasons

Doc.2 : A geopolitical theory on the sea power, the Mahan theory (1890)

« In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890), Mahan reviewed the role of sea power in the emergence and growth of the British Empire. In the book’s first chapter, he described the sea as a “great highway” and “wide common” with “well-worn trade routes” over which men pass in all directions. He identified several narrow passages or strategic “chokepoints,” the control of which contributed to Great Britain’s command of the seas. He famously listed six fundamental elements of sea power: geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, size of population, character of the people, and character of government. Based largely on those factors, Mahan envisioned the United States as the geopolitical successor to the British Empire. »

Source :


1) How does the « Rule, Britannia » represent the sea for the British power ?

2) Make a link between the British sea power and colonialism and the theory of Alfred Mahan.

Recap documents 1 to 2

Building a strong naval power has for long been seen as vital for the British Islands : it was a way to ensure the capacity of the British to fight a foreign invasion and to defeat it before it would have landed, because the Birtish land army forces were not that important.

The two-power standard was the maxim of British naval armament in the period from 1889 to the First World War, according to which the British fleet should always be at least as strong as the two next bigger fleets combined.

So the Royal Navy was a major component of the British maritime power and it still is nowadays, even though the Royal Navy has been overtaken by the US Navy.

The British merchant navy also was an asset for the British sea power and helped with the construction of a colonial Empire, aimint at exploiting several rewarding resources. They favored creating commercial settlements, on the coasts of their colonies to organize trade easily : for instance, in India, they started with the commercial settlements of Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, Surat. All the excahnges were done by the sea.

The maximal extent of the British colonial Empire was reached in 1922, with 400 million inhabitants (one quarter of the world population at that time) and 29,8 million km² (22 % of the earth ground surface).

Sea is also part of the British identity and imaginary : it is seen as the first means of power for these islands. Several patriotic references include sea, such as the song « Rule, Britannia ! Rule the waves » or the representation of a ship on many patriotic drawings.

B. The geographical reasons

Document 4: The port of Felixstowe

Recap documents 1 to 4

The home waters and the EEZ provide many resources : the North Sea provided oil and gas enough for the country to be energetically independent from 1981 to 2004 ; the UK is the global leader for off-shore wind power ; fishing is also an important field of activity for the British economy.

For the overseas territories, as they are spread all over the world, they provide a large variety of resources but also of biodiversity, which needs to be protected.

As the UK is an insular country, the majority of the commercial flows historically depend on the sea. It explains that the UK is highly reliable on its ports. It has many ports (Felixstowe, Liverpool, Southampton, Immingham). But these ports have progressively been overtaken by other European ports, such as Hamburg (Germany), Antwerp (Belgium), Valencia (Spain) and, obviously, the most important one in Europe, Rotterdam (Netherlands). None of the British ports are in the top positions in the global ports rankings, which is a challenge.

II. The current challenges for the British maritime power

Document 1: What is the Protocol ?

It is part of the UK-EU deal that allows goods to pass freely from Northern Ireland (in the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland (in the European Union).

What does this mean in practice ?

Goods entering Northern Ireland must continue to follow EU regulations and standards, including strict sanitary rules on food products. This has resulted in the checks moving from Northern Ireland’s ports on products brought into the country from the rest of the UK.

What problems has this caused ?

In the business world, companies and other traders say this has added significantly to their administrative burden and that this burden will only increase with the expiry of grace periods introduced by the UK to delay the full checks. In the political world, Unionist parties also argue that the new Irish sea border undermines Nothern Ireland’s place in the UK.

What is the UK government proposing to do ?

British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is preparing to introduce domestic legislation that would allow UK government ministers to override parts of the protocol, lifting the requirement for checks required to meet EU rules under the agreed 2019 deal – a move that would likely lead to retaliatory actions from Brussels, potentially sparking a trade war with the EU. Johnson said the protocol was designed before a global pandemic and a European war created a cost of living crisis. »

Source : The Irish Times, « What is the problem with the Northern Ireland Protocol », May 16th, 2022.

Doc.3 : The Falkland Islands / Las Islas Malvinas : a conflict for the share of the EEZ between the UK and Argentina

Explain the three different types of challenges shown in these documents.

Recap of documents 1 to 3: the 3 different challenges

1. Brexit has already had consequences on the sea field :

– the case of the border between the UK (now out of the European Union) and Ireland has been really hard to solve. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, contrary to the Republic of Ireland (southern part of the Irish island) which is an independent state. The case of the border between the UK and Ireland was questioning both the ground border and the sea border. A « Northern Ireland Protocol » has been adopted : for the sea, it implies that the goods need to be checked to be shipped and traded between the Great Britain island and the Irish island.

According to many people, it creates sort of a barrier, a separation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, even though it still is a British territory.

This fact goes along with the problem that Brexit also rose the question of the « unity » of the United Kingdom : Northern Ireland or Scotland could be tempted to get their independence from London.

– it changed the rules with the other EU members in the share of the bording seas : it is especially accurate between fishermen who need to be more instructed about where they are allowed or not to take fish. Several tensions already appeared with French fishermen next to the Jersey islands, in the Channel sea. Same goes in the Mediterranean, with the British territory of Gibraltar (South of Spain).

2. The power of the Royal Navy also is a challenge : its power has decreased but the UK chooses to prove its capacity, by sending ships next to what is seen as the two main global challenges at the moment : Russia and China. The Royal Navy has launched operations next to Taiwan in order to keep an eye on the Chinese behavior. In March 2022, it also took part to an international operation in the Baltic sea to dishearten Russia from other offensives, in the context of the war in Ukraine.

3. At the global scale, the UK is involved in some territorial conflicts :

the Falkland islands are a British oversea territory, next to Argentina. The two countries are on a fight since the 1980s (during which a genuine war took place) for the EEZ, explained first by the fishing interest and now, oil.

the Chagos islands are quite the same, in the Indian ocean, with Mauritius. The UK even was sentenced by the International Court of Justice in 2019 for not having sovereignty of the Chagos Islands but the UK announced it wouldn’t be respecting this sentence and is keeping renting the main island to the US Army.