The post-Brexit fishing dispute explained

Johnson insists the UK’s position on licences granted to small French fishing vessels has not changed

Fishing boats in the channel
(Image credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Brexit Minister David Frost will arrive in Paris today in an attempt to end the bitter dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights.

Frost will meet with France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune to discuss the so-called “fishing war” triggered by a dispute over the number of licences granted to small French fishing vessels since the UK left the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron delayed the introduction of sanctions on British seafood imports - set to come into force on Tuesday 2 November - “to allow for more talks”, said Euronews.

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But the French government maintains that the measures, which could also include “a ban on British trawlers landing their catches in French ports and tighter customs checks to hamper cross-Channel trade”, may still be implemented if a deal cannot be reached, reports The Irish Times.

Threats still on the table

Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesperson, said the threat of sanctions “remained on the table” depending on the outcome of the talks, with Frost also set to meet European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic on Friday.

He added: “We are just waiting for one thing: for the UK to respect the deal that they signed.”

Speaking at a Cop26 press conference on Tuesday evening, Boris Johnson appeared “adamant” that the UK had not changed its position over the dispute, said MailOnline.

“Since you ask about whether the UK has changed its position on the fishing issue, the answer is no. We are working very, very closely with our French friends and partners on the things that matter most to the people of the world and that is tackling climate change and reducing CO2,” he told reporters.

He added that compared to tackling climate change, disputes over fishing are “vanishingly unimportant”.

A European Commission spokesperson, however, said talks with France, Jersey and the UK had “created a positive dynamic aiming at a solution”, reported Politico.

The parties now have a “better understanding” of the issues and there is hope this will “soon translate into concrete results”, they added.

The French transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, also hinted a solution could be on the horizon, telling Europe Radio 1 on Wednesday that he had spoken to his UK counterpart and “the spirit is a constructive one”.

Seized British fishing boat returns home

Tensions were raised last week when a British trawler was seized by France and another fined.

The British scallop dredger Cornelis Get Jan was accused of fishing in French waters without an appropriate licence, but has since been released by French authorities and arrived back in the UK today, reported The Telegraph.

Captain of the fishing boat, Jondy Ward, said he felt he had “definitely” been ensnared in the dispute over post-Brexit fishing rules between France and the UK, claiming his papers were in order and that he did not know whether French or UK officials had been at fault.

The ships were cautioned during “classic checks” off Le Havre, a port in the Normandy region, France’s Maritime Minister Annick Girardin announced in a tweet last week. This is “not a war but this a combat”, she told French media.

The crackdown came as Paris pledged to ban all British seafood imports in “retaliation” for the UK government’s decision not to grant more fishing licences to French trawlers in British waters, The Times reported.

Hostile terms

The Brexit deal included an agreement that French boats under 12 metres in length would be allowed to fish within the UK’s inshore waters – provided they had a proven record of fishing in those areas and the relevant licence.

France claimed this agreement had been breached after the UK and Jersey last month decided to deny fishing licences to dozens of French boats.

Although fishing accounts for only a small part of the economy on both sides of the Channel, it carries significant political symbolism, in part because regaining control over UK waters was a pivotal part of the Leave campaign in 2016.

Under the Brexit fishing deal, EU boats would “continue to fish in UK waters for some years to come”, but UK fishing boats would “get a greater share of the fish from UK waters”, as the BBC explained after the agreement came into force in January.

A shift in the share is due to be phased in between now and 2026, after which the UK would have the right to completely exclude EU boats.

Wave of threats

Paris has pledged to ban all British seafood imports and to increase customs checks on lorries arriving from and leaving for the UK. And a second wave of retaliatory measures involving the supply of electricity to the Channel Islands is also in the pipeline, the French authorities have warned.

“The French state will continue to support its fisheries industry,” Macron’s government said yesterday. Frost responded that “it is very disappointing that France has felt it necessary to make threats”.

The threats have not come out of the blue, however. Earlier this month, France’s Minister for Europe – a “close ally” of Macron, according to The Guardian – said the Brexit deal had to be “implemented fully” to avoid Paris taking “European or national measures to exert pressure on the UK”.

The warning followed reports that French fishermen were threatening to disrupt Christmas for Britons by cutting off crucial supplies if the terms of the Brexit agreement relating to fishing were not honoured.

As the row escalates, many fishermen feel stuck in the middle. Barrie Deas of the UK’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the “tit for tat” relationship between Britain and France was “unhelpful”.

Andrew Brown, director of Macduff Shellfish, which owns the detained vessel, told Sky News that the boat was a “pawn” in the dispute between the two countries, and that its fishing activity has been “entirely legal”.

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