UK-France tensions escalate over post-Brexit fishing rights

Tensions have flared again in an ongoing dispute between France and the United Kingdom over post-Brexit fishing rights.

Tensions have flared again in an ongoing dispute between France and the United Kingdom over post-Brexit fishing rights.

On Monday, 1 November, French President Emmanuel Macron postponed trade sanctions that would have blocked British fishermen from French ports beginning on 2 November, to allow negotiators from both sides to work on new proposals to defuse the dispute. Macron also delayed the implementation of a “go slow” order at border checks for incoming shipments from the U.K., and temporarily backed off threats to cut energy supplies to the Channel Island of Jersey, which is controlled by the U.K. Macron said he called for the delay in order to allow negotiators from both sides to work on new proposals to defuse the dispute.

The disagreement, which first burst into the open in May 2021, stems from the number of fishing licences granted to French fishermen after Brexit. France is angry that just 15 permits out of 47 applications had been granted to their fishermen to operate in Britain’s coastal waters, and that Jersey has delivered less than half of the 216 requested permits. Following the recent outcry from the French, Jersey offered fishing licences to 162 French vessels, stating that the remaining vessels had not demonstrated that they had fished in Jersey waters for at least one day in the past four years. But French fishermen said that proof is impossible for small boats to provide, as they are not fitted with the right technology to prove their historical fishing locations.

U.K. Environment Secretary George Eustice claimed in a statement the U.K. government had granted 98 percent of licence applications from E.U. vessels to fish in the U.K.'s waters.

“We have made it consistently clear that we will consider any further evidence on the remainder,” he said, referring to vessels that have so far been unable to provide proof that they had fished in the six-to-12-mile nautical zone in the years before the U.K. left the E.U. 

The U.K. gave France its own ultimatum, with a 48-hour window to back off its threats before Britain began initiating official dispute talks according to the protocol set out in the Brexit deal. Eustice told BBC Radio he believes Macron is playing hardball over fishing rights to shore up support ahead of the French presidential elections in April 2022.

“[It] is completely inflammatory and is the wrong way to go about things,” Eustice said. “Two can play at that game … It’s always open to us to increase the enforcement we do on French vessels, to board more of them if that’s what they’re doing to our vessels – there are other administrative things we can require of vessels,” he said.

Eustice, a backer of the Brexit movement, which prioritized the reassertion of Britain's control over its fishing grounds, said the U.K. could block French vessels landing their catches in the U.K. in response. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News any French action the British government deems inappropriate will face a legal challenge.

"The French have made completely unreasonable threats, including to the Channel Islands and to our fishing industry, and they need to withdraw those threats or else we will use the mechanisms of our trade agreement with the E.U. to take action," Truss said.

On Thursday, 28 October, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson deployed two Royal Navy vessels, the H.M.S. Tamar and the H.M.S. Severn, to the Channel Islands, a move that was mirrored by the French side, which deployed two of its own naval patrol ships soon after, according to The New York Times.

Last week, following increasingly heated exchanges and the detention of a Scottish scallop trawler by French authorities, the French ambassador in the U.K. was summoned to the British Foreign Office for a formal rebuke. The trawler, the Cornelis Gert Jan, which is owned by Macduff Shellfish, a subsidiary of Canada's Clearwater Seafoods, was detained in La Havre and its skipper was questioned by French police for five hours. The vessel has been accused of fishing in French waters without a licence and threatened with a EUR 75,000 (USD 87,000) fine. The charges have been denied by Macduff Shellfish, and the U.K. government said the vessel was on an E.U.-permitted list. Fishing industry leaders have called on the U.K. government to stop the captain and crew of the Cornelis Gert Jan being used as a “pawn in a political game” by France.

There have since been direct talks between the two countries’ prime ministers while both attend the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, but no updates on the issue have been issued as of 2 November.

"My understanding is that the British were going to come back to us tomorrow with other proposals. All that will be worked on. We'll see where we are tomorrow at the end of the day, to see if things have really changed," Macron said on 1 November. "My wish is that we can find a way out on all these issues."

The U.K. government issued a statement on 1 November expressing relief France delayed its implementation of retaliatory measures.

“We welcome the French government’s announcement that they will not go ahead with implementing their proposed measures as planned tomorrow. The U.K. has set out its position clearly on these measures in recent days. As we have said consistently, we are ready to continue intensive discussions on fisheries, including considering any new evidence to support the remaining license applications,” it said. “We welcome France’s acknowledgement that in-depth discussions are needed to resolve the range of difficulties in the U.K.-E.U. relationship.”

Photo courtesy of Matthew Troke/Shutterstock


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