Before accompanying Emmanuel Macron to the COP26, which starts on October 31 in Glasgow, Catherine Colonna, Ambassador of France to the United Kingdom, will make a small detour through the offices of the Foreign Office. She was summoned in the evening of Thursday to come and explain the hardening of the French position vis-à-vis the granting of fishing licenses and the ultimatum posed by the French government on November 2, before consider retaliatory measures.
Judging “Unjustified” actions planned by France, the head of British diplomacy, Liz Truss, instructed her secretary of state for Europe, Wendy Morton, to “Convening the French ambassador”.
“We reiterate that the government has granted 98% of license applications from EU vessels to fish in UK waters and as we have made clear we are looking at any evidence for those who remain “, underlines in a press release a spokesperson for the British government, citing again a figure disputed by France, which speaks of 90% of the licenses granted.
The UK is partly playing on the numbers, as it refers to all UK waters and the entire European trawler fleet, including huge vessels, while the ongoing litigation concerned a much smaller fishing area, around the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey and the English coasts and only French trawlers, mostly very small, who have been fishing in this area for several centuries.
In the Brexit agreement, snapped out on December 24, 2020, the British government pledged to allow European trawlers to continue, under certain conditions, to fish in British waters. Most foreign trawlers fish in an area beyond 12 nautical miles from the British coast.
The ongoing dispute between London and Paris concerns a specific area of 6 to 12 nautical miles off the Jersey and English coasts. The British government had promised to develop the licenses of French trawlers who fished in previous years in this specific area, provided reasonable proof was provided. In these disputed areas, London and Jersey have granted just over 210 definitive licenses, but Paris is still claiming more than 200.
For months, exchanges have been strained between the two nations. And on Thursday the Isle of Jersey government said to itself “Extremely disappointed by the announcement of the French government”, who threatened to ban from Tuesday the “Landing of British fishing vessels in designated ports”, a “Strengthening of controls” sanitary and customs on “Trucks to and from the United Kingdom”.
At the same time, France made public the arrest of two English trawlers fishing in the Bay of Seine, in French waters. According to the French Ministry of the Sea, the first boat was sanctioned for “Entry to control” and the second boat that “Did not appear on the lists of licenses granted in the United Kingdom” by the European Commission and France, was diverted to the port of Le Havre after refusing to comply with the request for control from the maritime gendarmerie.
The owner of the baffled trawler told AFP that it was a “Misunderstanding” and denounced a “Political maneuver”. On the side of Granville Bay, French fishermen estimated that these “Controls are long overdue”. In fact, these checks are in fact seasonal and occur every year. The magnitude of these recent arrests testifies to the ongoing tension.
“Language of force”
In the morning of Thursday, the threatening statements had multiplied, with the French Minister of the Sea, Annick Girardin, evoking on RTL “A fight in progress”, while the French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune believed that the British government was only the result of “language of force”. During the day, appeals for calm had arisen, first from the British Parliament, where the British Minister for the Environment George Eustice was calling for “keep calm” and to “A de-escalation” and affirming that his “Door always remains open” to discussions. An hour later, French Prime Minister Jean Castex replied by saying he too “Permanently open to discussions, morning, noon and evening”, but, he nuanced, “The British must respect their commitments”.
At the end of the afternoon, an additional appeasement signal emerged from Jersey, with the announcement that his government was granting a definitive fishing license to 113 French boats as of this Friday and a provisional one, valid until January 31, 2022, to 49 other trawlers.
And then, in the early evening, the tension rose a notch, with the announcement of the summons of the French ambassador. While the fishing sector represents a tiny part in the British (0.1% of GDP) and French (0.06% of GDP) economies, the scale of the dispute bears witness to the terrible deterioration of relations between the two country for months, linked to Brexit and in particular to an acute loss of confidence between the former European partners.
Tensions with the UK are not limited to France. On Friday, new discussions are to be held between London and the European Union, around the Northern Irish protocol, another acute point of friction. The atmosphere this weekend in Rome for the G20, then in Glasgow for the COP26 promises to be tense.