(Bloomberg) -- The European Union has privately urged the UK not to backtrack on international human rights agreements that underpin ties between the two sides, illustrating the risk Rishi Sunak is facing as he weighs options to force his deportation plans past the courts.
Senior EU officials and some members states have raised with British counterparts concerns about the UK’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Refugee Convention, according to people familiar with the matter. While such pacts have frustrated the prime minister’s efforts to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, they also buttress other deals, such as the Good Friday Agreement, which helped end decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The UK Home Office declined to comment. A spokesperson for the European Commission didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Sunak has come under pressure from some Conservative Party members to “dis-apply” the UK’s obligations under the conventions after the UK Supreme Court ruled two weeks ago that the Rwanda plan was unlawful because the Central African nation couldn’t guarantee the safety of deportees. Sunak promised a new treaty with Rwanda and emergency legislation to declare the country safe, but has so far yet to produce either document amid fierce internal debate over the details.
“I do want to deliver on our Rwanda plan because that’s how we will finish the job,” Sunak told Bloomberg in an interview Sunday. “And we’re going to do everything that is necessary to make that happen.”
The treaty and legislation are still being drawn up and no final decisions have been made on their contents, Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters Tuesday. Some civil servants are working to a deadline of publishing the legislation in the last week before Parliament breaks for the Christmas holiday on Dec. 19, people familiar with the matter said.
The prime minister must decide whether to legislate in a way that allays the court’s concerns regarding Rwanda, specifically that people won’t be re-deported after arrival or whether to advance a bill that would circumvent British — and potentially international — courts.
Getting Sunak to take the second, harder-line course has become an obsession among some right-wing Tories, who view it as the natural next step in Britain’s divorce from the EU. They argue that an international body — in this case the court in Strasbourg that oversees the convention — shouldn’t hold sway over British affairs.
The home secretary fired by Sunak last month, Suella Braverman, has dismissed her former boss’s search for a compromise on the issue as “magical thinking.” She and like-minded Conservatives want to ensure that the ECHR and the UK’s own Human Rights Act, which enshrines elements of the European convention into British law, don’t apply in cases where migrants have arrived in small boats across the English Channel.
But passing such a “full-fat” version of the bill, as proponents call it, could have big ramifications. Leaving the ECHR is all but impossible to reconcile with agreements Britain has signed such as the Good Friday Agreement, a deal brokered after years of negotiations between the US, Ireland and feuding sectarian factions.
Moreover, Sunak could put his efforts to repair relations with Europe at risk. The prime minister regards the Windsor Framework, which ended the UK’s standoff with the EU over post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland, as one of his signature achievements.
The terms of the UK’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU also commit both sides to respecting the ECHR. Reneging on its international commitments could also risk future cooperation on migration with EU nations.
An EU-wide returns agreement is off the table while the UK pursues a policy of deporting migrants without processing their asylum claims, something that is contrary to European principles, the people said, although the UK hasn’t yet requested such a deal.
An agreement for the UK to work with the bloc’s Frontex border agency is also effectively ready to be announced, they said, which would allow the UK and member states to more easily exchange intelligence, expertise and personnel.
Sunak’s team has stressed the need to act fast to maximize the chances of flights to Rwanda happening before the next UK general election, due by January 2025 at the latest. No date has been set and the government will introduce the law as soon as it is ready, a government official said.
Amid the delay, Sunak’s government has given off mixed signals about how far it is willing to go with the legislation. Braverman’s successor as home secretary, James Cleverly, gave an interview with the Times newspaper over the weekend that was interpreted by right-wing Tories as a sign Downing Street was balking at the risk of international fallout.
Cleverly said people shouldn’t fixate on the Rwanda plan, adding, “Nothing is cost-free.”
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