If the French refuse to cooperate, we must take emergency action to toughen the asylum system
It is a mystery of politics that those who claim Britain is a small, irrelevant country always insist we have a unique responsibility to solve the world's problems, while those who say we are uniquely bad - prejudiced and racist - demand that ministers allow hundreds of thousands of migrants to move and live here, presumably in misery.
The reaction to the crisis in the English Channel has been staggering. Before the tragic deaths of 27 migrants on Wednesday, many self-proclaimed progressives had declared the crossings a non-problem, insisting the Tories were stupidly "talking themselves into a crisis" and "making voters care" by banging on about migrant boats.
Some claim the crossings are happening because Britain has not established enough safe routes for asylum seekers, as if the migrants on the French coastline had not already reached safety in Europe, and the people undertaking the sea journey - disproportionately young, male, healthy and prosperous enough to pay traffickers - are the same people who would come to Britain through resettlement schemes. Even more disingenuously, Keir Starmer claims the crossings have been caused by cuts in international aid spending.
The Labour Party has at least understood there is a humanitarian danger, but refuses to accept the Channel crossings are a challenge, too, for border security and immigration control. If they were honest, they would explain that their solution is to bring tens of thousands of migrants directly from France - a safe country, of course - to claim asylum in Britain.
From a humanitarian perspective and for the sake of border control, the crossings are a serious problem, and they need to be stopped. Ultimately, Britain needs a completely new asylum system and reformed human rights laws that allow us to defend our borders, control immigration and - more broadly - protect ourselves from serious crime and terrorism. These solutions will require patience and time, but as we confront this crisis, we are blessed with neither.
The best quick fix is an agreement with France. Ministers there are frustrated with Britain: they believe our soft immigration system and open labour market draw migrants to their northern coast to make the journey here. And they are right. But they have also knowingly fuelled the crisis. The French authorities have stood and watched as migrants have climbed aboard flimsy boats, and their navy has escorted dinghies away from French waters, leaving them for the British authorities to come to the rescue.
Behaving in such a way is no doubt tempting to President Macron. Like many of his predecessors, he fancies himself as a latter-day Napoleon, sitting astride the Continent and dominating others. He enjoys threatening to punish Britain for Brexit, and with elections next year, he wants to avoid letting opponents claim he is acting as Britain's border police.
Yet Macron faces problems too. He has called for an emergency meeting of EU ministers to discuss the crisis. But as a member of the Schengen area, France can do nothing in normal circumstances to stop migrants who have made it into Europe crossing its own borders. And the EU's Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that asylum must be sought in the first safe country a migrant enters, is not working. Unless Macron stops the boats leaving the French coastline, more migrants will keep coming to France.
So a deal with France is feasible. If it cannot be agreed, Britain should challenge France for failing to meet its obligations under the United Nations Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants. But that will take time, the consequences will anyway be limited, and the crisis will continue. With no deal, the other quick course of action is to pass emergency legislation, overriding human rights laws and mandating long sentences in new detention facilities for those who enter the country illegally, come from a safe country and refuse to leave Britain.
In the long run we need to tighten our labour market laws, process asylum claims offshore, and reach agreements with other countries to provide refuge for some of those who claim asylum here. And if reform requires derogations, or complete departure, from the European Convention on Human Rights, that is what we should be prepared to do.