Brothers in arms? The UK’s anti-refugee Borders bill has striking similarities to the Polish government’s new laws

There was a time when the Conservative Party was embarrassed by its connections to the Polish far right party. Now, they are boasting of their ties and copying one another’s laws, writes Luke Cooper.

Boris Johnson meets Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of the far right Law and Justice Party, 26 November 2021. Photo – No 10 Downing Street (Flickr).

Last November, Boris Johnson hosted the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and issued a press release that declared, ‘we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the face of threats against their border’. The use of such militarised language to describe attempts to keep out vulnerable migrants has been sadly normalised in Europe over the last decade.

There was a time when the UK’s relationship with the Polish far right was a matter of official embarrassment. David Cameron’s decision to leave the European People’s Party (the mainstream centre-right grouping of European parties) and build an alliance with the Polish far right party, Law and Justice, was an attempt to furnish his eurosceptic credentials among Conservative party members.

Keen to maintain relations with centre-right governments, Cameron never flaunted these ties. In hindsight, the affair was emblematic of ‘Cameronism’ and its belief that the radical right could be tamed by incremental concessions. But, in truth, of course, this approach simply enabled the shift of British Toryism towards the authoritarian right.

In a sign of the party’s lurch in this direction, Boris Johnson and foreign secretary Liz Truss have over the last few months gone out of their way to boast of their close ties to Poland, one of the EU’s most authoritarian states. Of course, they are natural allies, as they share a common agenda – and there is sadly no clearer sign of this than in their new border laws.  

Legalising illegal “pushbacks” and criminalising migrants  
In response to the crisis on the Belarusian border, the Polish government passed a law legalising ‘pushbacks’. This refers to the practice of using force to turn away those seeking humanitarian protection and push them back across the border, regardless of the danger this may present to their life and liberty, and without making an individual assessment of their status. Accordingly, a policy of systematic pushbacks violates the 1951 Geneva Convention.   

Although the UK’s policy in this area is reflective of its island character, a similar policy orientation is found in its proposed Nationality and Borders Bill. Under the guise of ‘maritime enforcement powers’, the UK is following Poland in legalising in domestic law ‘pushbacks’ that are illegal in international law.

While the form is slightly different, both the Polish and UK laws introduce a principle of differential treatment. Migrants who arrive seeking humanitarian protection by irregular routes are punished for doing so – even when legal routes do not exist. In the Polish case, the new law means migrants in this category can be automatically expelled from the country and banned from re-entry for a period of 6 months to 3 years.

In the UK, the proposed law expands the existing offence of ‘facilitating irregular entry’ to include those who ‘seek no benefit’ from doing so. This effectively means prosecutors do not have to show a connection to a criminal gang in order to pursue a conviction – and therefore will lead to the de facto criminalisation of asylum seekers per se.

In the UK, the original law had been drafted in a way that it would also criminalise maritime organisations seeking to protect life at sea. Following a campaign by Nautilus International such organisations will be exempt. But the intent of the law, which remains, was always to criminalise asylum seekers, not UK or French maritime organisations. 

The Polish government has also introduced a law that allows the Interior minister to ban human rights organisations and journalists from entry into the border area. The UK parallel example here is the Policing Bill, which grants the Home Secretary sweeping powers to ban protests and marches if they believe them to be ‘seriously disruptive’.

These similarities are not matters of coincidence. The cooperation between the two countries is real and extensive. British troops have actually been stationed at the Polish border to assist with the pushbacks and help the government build its Trump-style border wall. But there is also a difference between undertaking pushbacks into the EU (as the UK is hoping to do) and outside of the EU (as Poland has been doing). The UK has to deal with EU and French resistance to this policy. Whereas Poland has sadly encountered little opposition from other EU member states (in contrast, the European Parliament and courts system have proven to be more of a problem). Sadly, all over Europe, we find examples of political weakness and capitulation in the face of this right wing authoritarianism.    

The new authoritarianism
A common feature holding together these examples is the open disregard of both governments for international law. In the name of ‘protecting’ the nation from the ‘threat’ at its borders, foundational parts of the human rights and rule of law system are called into question. In Poland, this has been combined with a sweeping offensive against judicial independence and media freedom. There are hints of this direction in UK government legislation, notably in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, and the ‘review’ of the Human Rights Act. But the British case is still not as advanced as the Polish.

Britain’s Conservative party has a decision to make on how far they wish to embrace this radical right politics. Withdrawing the Borders Bill and dropping the reforms of the Human Rights Act, would be a welcome step back from the brink. But don’t hold your breath.


Luke Cooper is an associate researcher at LSE IDEAS, the in-house foreign policy think tank of the London School of Economics. His book, Authoritarian Contagion; the Global Threat to Democracy (Bristol University Press) is out now.  


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