For much of the year, British and French ministers have traded threats and accusations over post-Brexit arrangements for fishing waters. But the row now appears to be coming to a head.
What is the clash about?
When the UK left the EU’s single market and customs union on 31 January 2020 – the so-called transition period after the end of the country’s membership of the bloc – it left the common fisheries policy that has peacefully divvied up the spoils of Europe’s waters since the 1970s.
It also ended the Bay of Granville agreement, signed in 2000 by Britain and the self-governing Channel Islands, which had established a pattern of rights for French boats up to three miles from the islands’ coasts.
Within the Brexit trade and cooperation agreement, struck last Christmas Eve, there is a new EU-UK fisheries agreement that offers French fishers a continuation of the status quo in a zone in the waters of Jersey and Guernsey, and in the coastal zone between six and 12 miles from the UK’s shores, up to 2026 – if they can prove that they had previously been operating in those waters.
What is going wrong?
Almost 1,700 EU vessels have now been licensed to fish in UK waters, the UK government says, equating to 98% of EU applications for fishing licences. The percentage figure is disputed in Paris.
The main differences between the two sides are centred on rights within the six- to 12-mile zone off the British coast. Earlier this week, the European Commission said the UK government had approved 15 out of 47 applications for French boats to operate in those coastal waters.
A further 15 applications are being considered where evidence of activity in those waters is limited, but 17 applications have been withdrawn by French applicants because of “poor evidence”.
Of greater concern to the French authorities is that 55 boats applying to fish in the waters off Jersey, a British crown dependency, have also been turned down by the island’s government.
The French government says that the level of evidence being demanded by the authorities is unrealistic and that the UK is acting in breach of its treaty obligations.
On Wednesday the French government said that unless something changed, it would ban British fishing boats from landing seafood in French ports from next Tuesday.
France also vowed to impose onerous checks on cross-Channel trade, and threatened the UK’s energy supply. The UK and Jersey rely on subsea cables bringing energy from French nuclear power stations.
How has Downing Street responded?
Angrily. The French government is threatening to act unilaterally. It does not yet have the support of the other EU member states to go through the dispute resolution mechanism in the trade and cooperation agreement to impose sanctions on the UK.
Downing Street, somewhat ironically given its actions over Northern Ireland, has accused Paris of threatening to break international law.
The government has said that if the French threats come to pass, they “will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response”.
What is going to happen?
While the French government is infuriated by the British government’s attitude to the trade and cooperation agreement, including the separate row over Northern Ireland, the coming presidential election in France is further fuelling the disagreement.
Emmanuel Macron wants to show that he is backing his fishing communities. A full trade dispute appears inevitable, with tit-for-tat measures.
A deadline of Monday 1 November has been set by the French for the problem to be resolved through the issuing of further licences.
It does not seem likely that the UK will respond in a favourable manner to the sabre-rattling, although Jersey’s government announced a few extra permits on Thursday and has said it will consider any further evidence presented by applicants.
The trade and cooperation agreement allows the UK to respond with proportionate sanctions on the French, which will most likely affect those vessels that do have permits to operate.
The situation is likely to get worse, with potential blockades by French fishers of British and Jersey ports, before it gets any better.