On Nov. 1, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a warning to the United Kingdom, declaring that France would make “trade war-style” threats to Britain if the latter does not give in to the French’s demands for fishing licenses.
While there have been hopes that Britain and France would ease tensions, there has not been much progress so far.
Escalation in the Channel
On Jan. 1, 2021 a licensing system came into effect under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) for fishing vessels that governs the European Union’s (EU) access to UK waters and vice versa. It promises British fishing vessels a greater share of fish from their own waters, with part of the EU’s previous share being handed over in an “adjustment period” that is expected to last until 2026.
However, the French government has reported that the UK has only issued half of the fishing licenses available, despite Britain’s insistence that 98% of the EU vessels have applied for entry into UK waters.
The trade dispute began on Oct. 28, when a fishing row ensued between the UK and France.
Paris threatened to prohibit British fishing from vital ports, and threatened to impose import checks on cross-Channel trade as well as to cut energy to the Isle of Jersey, should British Prime Minister Boris Johnson fail to permit more licenses for French trawlers to operate in British waters.
London has claimed that there are no records of British fishing boats in the given region before Brexit and thus have “no right to access the lucrative fisheries.”
“The measures being threatened do not appear to be compatible with the trade and cooperation agreement and wider international law, and, if carried through, will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response. We will be relaying our concerns to the EU Commission and French government.”
The tensions were elevated even further when a leaked letter from French Prime Minister Jean Castex read that Britain should be punished for its exit from the EU, stating that the exit was “more damaging than remaining.”
This letter has raised some beliefs within the British government that the EU is not negotiating in “good faith” consistent with the Northern Ireland protocol, which has established border checks on goods between the province and the rest of the island nation. These checks, in turn, have disturbed the intra-UK trade, which culminated in food shortages and protests in Northern Ireland.
On Nov.1, a British scallop trawler named the Cornelis was detained in the port of Le Havre, after the French reported that it did not have a valid license. Ship owner Macduff Shellfish said that its vessel was “legally fishing for scallop in French waters,” claiming that it was used as “another pawn in the ongoing dispute between the UK and France” over post-Brexit fishing licenses.
France has calculated that, as of 2019, over a quarter of British seafood exports have amounted to £561.1 million or US$764.7 million.
In response to the threats, a spokesperson of the UK government said, “France’s threats are disappointing and disproportionate, and not what we would expect from a close ally and partner.”
Lord David Frost commented, “It is very disappointing that France has felt it necessary to make threats late this evening against the UK fishing industry and seemingly traders more broadly.”
He also hopes that the opinion stated in the French Prime Minister’s letter is “not held more widely across the EU”, stating that the UK may have to result in legal proceedings under the Brexit agreement.
Boris Johnson is hosting the United Nations COP26 climate summit this week, and does not want the fishing row to spoil the meeting with the world’s biggest economies.
Macron and Johnson have both met in a G20 summit in Rome, where they exchanged a “mock-combative fist bump” but seemed to have not communicated as they met the other leaders.
“We have been seeking to work with the French government to issue more fishing licenses. We stand ready to continue that work,” a spokesman for Johnson declared.
A French diplomatic source told Reuters that Macron also wished to repair the relationship between France and Britain.
“The president is in favour of calming things down, but at the same time he can’t pretend the British are not reneging on the commitments they’ve made,” the source said.
However, Macron still vows to impose measures should the UK not respond to the issue at hand.
Macron faces an election in April next year in which he is expecting a new term as President of France. Due to this, some British officials say that he is looking to improve his image, but other European diplomats have also noticed similar signs from Johnson for Brexit supporters.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary George Eustice warned that the UK would have to retaliate should the French proceed with their threats of blockading British fishing boats.
“Two can play at that game,” he said.
While the political tensions stir up, the fishing industry from both sides may face dire consequences.
During the detainment of the Cornelis, fisherman Andre Tesson told The Independent that the British boats should not be fishing in French waters.
“It is not the first time.” said Tesson, hoping that the two governments would “find a solution.”
“Because if us from one side, we can’t fish on the English side, and they on one side come and fish in ours, it’s natural for there to be some repercussions after.”
Philippe Filou, an owner of a fishing equipment shop, said that he doesn’t think that the situation will “end well.”
On the other side of the Channel, British fishermen have long been unhappy with the inability of their government to help boost their industry after Brexit, saying that the TCA has “failed to deliver on lawmakers’ Brexit promises,” and has left the fishing sector to struggle.
“The deal was absolutely shameful and disgraceful – that’s the only way to describe it,” said David Pesssell, managing director of Plymouth Trawler Agents. “They broke their word on every count in effect.”
After speaking to NBC News, in 2017, concerning hopes that Brexit would provide improvements over the fishing industry, Newquay fisherman Phil Trebilcock is now disappointed that the trade deal has allowed some foreign vessels into British waters.