Sir Keir Starmer insisted closer co-operation was needed with the European Union on the small boats crisis in the face of claims he would hand control of immigration policy back to Brussels.
The Labour leader indicated he could be prepared to do a deal with Brussels which would involve the UK taking a quota of asylum seekers who arrive in the bloc in exchange for the ability to return people who cross the English Channel.
But he insisted that his focus was on ensuring that an anti-terrorism style international crackdown could smash the gangs behind the “vile” trade, preventing people leaving in small boats from France in the first place.
Sir Keir visited The Hague, in the Netherlands, for talks with the EU’s Europol law enforcement agency.
Deepening intelligence ties with Europe as part of a new post-Brexit security pact and strengthening powers to restrict the movement of those suspected of organised immigration crime would form part of Sir Keir’s plan.
But the Tories seized on the suggestion that he would be prepared to negotiate with Brussels on the possibility of accepting a migrant quota as part of an EU-wide returns deal for people crossing the Channel.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said Sir Keir would let the UK become a “dumping ground” for Europe’s migrants.
But Sir Keir argued that under the Tories “we are not deciding, as a country, who is coming to the UK – the gangs are deciding”.
As part of its plans, Labour says it would work to reach a new agreement to share real-time intelligence with the EU similar to the Schengen Information System II, a database of terror suspects and immigration offenders which the UK had automatic access to before Brexit.
The party has also vowed to strengthen powers to restrict the movement of people smugglers by making it quicker and easier to obtain civil orders, known as serious crime prevention orders, which are used to target offenders such as terrorists and drug traffickers.
More British officers would be stationed in Europe under the plans, with a “cross-border police force” focused solely on disrupting criminal gangs, Labour said.
In an interview with The Times newspaper, Sir Keir said he would also seek an EU-wide returns agreement for asylum seekers who arrive in Britain, which may involve a “quid pro quo” of accepting quotas of migrants from the bloc.
“That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe,” he told The Times.
Labour will restore the security of Britain's borders.
Good to be in The Hague to set out how. pic.twitter.com/TZEWrUYt5P
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) September 13, 2023
He would not be drawn on the number of asylum seekers he would be happy to take in under a deal with the European Union.
The Labour leader told ITV’s Good Morning Britain his main aim was ensuring that people did not make it across the English Channel in the first place.
“The first stage is: how do you work with police forces across countries to ensure that you stop people getting into the boats in the first place, and smash this vile trade?
“And that is about working here in Europol, working across Europe, to ensure that the criminals are brought down, that they are treated in the same way that we treat terrorists. So that’s stage one.
“The question of whether people can then be returned only applies if people are still getting across the Channel, and what I want to do is to stop this trade, stop this vile business in the first place.”
On Times Radio, he added: “Under Labour, we get in control of this situation.
“At the moment we’ve got the appalling situation where we are not deciding, as a country, who’s coming to the UK – the gangs are deciding. That is fundamentally wrong.”
Funding for the measures would be redirected from the Government’s plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda, which is currently held up in the courts following a series of legal challenges.
Responding to Sir Keir’s plans, Home Secretary Mrs Braverman said: “He’ll let Brussels decide who comes to the UK.
“He’ll agree to make Britain the dumping ground for many of the millions of illegal migrants that Europe doesn’t want. And none of this will stop the boats.”
Health Secretary Steve Barclay told Times Radio: “It’s no surprise that Keir Starmer wants to give up control of our immigration policy to the EU and let them decide what quotas we have to take.
“We’re very clear we need to have a strong deterrent. That’s why we put in place the Rwanda policy.”
Taking a hard-line stance on immigration crime will be seen as important to convince swing voters that Labour can be trusted to stem the number of Channel crossings, which has reached more than 23,000 so far this year.
Sir Keir’s meeting with Europol officials at The Hague comes ahead of a trip to Montreal, Canada, for a summit of “progressive” politicians.
Reports suggest he is also set to be hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris next week.
He could also be eyeing a meeting in the White House with US President Joe Biden in the coming months, whose “Bidenomics” and landmark green subsidy push has attracted admiration from the Opposition.