Britain would take asylum seekers from the EU as part of any returns deal under a Labour government, Yvette Cooper has said, but would not formally join the European quota scheme.
The shadow home secretary said on Friday that Labour would be willing to accept people from mainland Europe as part of an EU-wide returns deal, which the party hopes to agree to if it wins power next year. But she insisted this would focus on returning children to their families in Britain and would not involve signing up to be a member of the EU’s quota system.
“What we are talking about is having a negotiation around a returns agreement where, for example, we think that should look at family reunion for children who have family in the UK who currently have no safe legal route to be able to join that family in the UK,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “As a result they end up on these boats, they end up being exploited by these criminal gangs.”
Cooper and Keir Starmer spent Thursday in The Hague talking to officials from the EU’s law enforcement agency, Europol, about cross-border cooperation on stopping people-smugglers.
The Labour leader began that visit with an interview with the Times in which he made clear he wanted an EU-wide returns deal and was willing to discuss the UK accepting a quota of asylum seekers in return.
Those comments sparked 24 hours of attacks from Conservative MPs, who claimed Labour’s plans could result in an extra 100,000 migrants coming to Britain from the EU every year.
Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, called Labour’s plans “a cheap stunt to deceive the public [which] will not solve the problem”.
Cooper called those attacks “fiction” on Friday, insisting her party would not sign up to be a member of the official EU quota system, under which countries have to take an agreed share of migrants or pay €20,000 for each person they refuse to take.
Labour officials accept, however, that they will have to agree to some form of burden sharing with EU member states if they want a returns agreement.
Starmer will spend Friday in Montreal at a meeting of leaders from centre-left parties around the world. He is expected to meet Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, before flying to Paris next week to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
While in France he is expected to talk to his counterparts about the importance of strong border controls. A Labour aide told the Times on Friday: “Border security is a progressive cause.”
However, some on the left have criticised Starmer’s recent promises to “smash” criminal people-smuggling gangs.
Steve Smith, the chief executive of Care4Calais, told the Guardian: “‘Smash the gangs’ may get him a headline in the Sun, but it’s not a plan.”