In the long and (un) glorious history of the Anglo-French maritime disputes, a bad-tempered mockery of access to the fishing grounds in the English Channel should only deserve a brief footnote, if at all. Britain and France have much in common and many interests that are closely related. But the dispute over a few dozen fishing licenses is absurdly exaggerated on both sides for small-minded political ends. A small dispute could escalate into a harmful trade war and poison broader UK-EU relations. There are major problems in the world that require Franco-British cooperation.
Fishing has always been predicted to be one of the hottest controversial issues in Britain’s divorce from the EU, and it has proven itself to be. The French and British governments are arguing over licenses to French ships operating in the 6-12 mile waters of the UK and those around Jersey. According to the terms of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement of last December, French boats that continue to seek access to these seas must have fished there in recent years. The proof that French skippers have to show is controversial, especially around the Channel Islands. The French government believes that meeting the requirements has been made impossible for some. Numerous French boats have been denied entry, although many others have been licensed.
Annoyed by the ongoing delays – and the lack of dialogue about the process – Paris has vowed retaliation. If no progress is made by November 2nd, it will ban British boats from landing their catches in French ports, tighten controls on British boats and trucks entering France and potentially shorten trade routes. It also threatened to “review” the UK’s electricity supply and pressured Brussels to initiate trade penalties against the UK.
The French threats are exaggerated, provocative and probably of dubious legitimacy. They revoked a few more licenses from the Jersey authorities, but not enough to defuse the stalemate. Now London has followed suit and threatened with additional controls of EU boats.
The problem is that the confrontation appears to offer a greater political dividend than de-escalation for both Boris Johnson and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. The UK Prime Minister seems to be doing everything possible to keep the Brexit wounds open. Nothing pleases its tabloid cheerleaders more than a fight with the French and provides a useful distraction from bottlenecks and rising costs at home. It’s hard to see how he’s changing course.
The French president, meanwhile, is under pressure to stand up for French fishermen, a loud lobby with strong political support in northern and western France. He faces re-election in April and the nationalist right sets the tone of the campaign. Macron is still angry about the nuclear submarine deal between Australia, the UK and the US. It was a major strategic setback for Paris but was hailed as a feat in London, its main military ally in Europe.
Paris is understandably disdainful of Johnson’s refusal to honor its Brexit deal commitments with regard to Northern Ireland. On fishing rights, it believes it has the means to keep the UK on its promises. A disruption of the cross-channel truck transport by annoying controls could cause real economic damage. The risk is that it will go too far and the UK will overreact. Other EU countries are reluctant to be determined by the interests of French scallopers and trawlers, but sympathy for Great Britain is in short supply in other EU capitals. Paris and London must negotiate a way out of this avarice-for-action trap. There is too much at stake.