Held British trawler leaves France ahead of talks

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Watch: Impounded British trawler sailing home from France

The British trawler impounded for a week by France in a deepening dispute over fishing rights sailed Wednesday from the French northern port of Le Havre after receiving permission to leave, a day ahead of crunch talks aimed at resolving the standoff .

 The Cornelis Gert Jan, which is accused of gathering two tons of scallops in French waters without a proper licence, left the port just after 1700 GMT, the correspondent said.

 The lawyer for the ship's captain, Mathieu Croix, said a court in the nearby city of Rouen had allowed it to leave without posting any financial guarantee.

 He told AFP that the court had rejected the state's demand that the trawler remain impounded until a 150,000 euro ($175,000) bond was deposited. The vessel's captain Jondy Ward was present in court for the hearing.

 "It is a good decision, of a kind that will allow the tensions to drop," said the lawyer. "French justice is independent from political pressure," he added.

 Ward then joined his seven crew members to begin the journey back, smiling at journalists on the shore.

 He still faces a trial in Le Havre on August 11, 2022 on charges of non-authorised fishing in French waters by a boat from outside the European Union, which carry a maximum fine of 75,000 euros ($87,000).

 "Glad to hear the #Cornelis is free to leave Le Havre and that the Brits on board are on their way home tonight," tweeted the UK's ambassador to France Menna Rawlings.

- 'All options on table' -

 The vessel's departure comes a day ahead of talks between British Brexit Minister David Frost and French Europe Minister Clement Beaune in Paris on Thursday aimed at finding a solution to the crisis.

 Frost is a staunch defender of Brexit while Beaune is a close ally of President Emmanuel Macron, not shy of making clear his belief that France should not pay for what he sees as Britain's mistake of leaving the EU.

 The two have also sparred on social media. Their meeting is set to be held behind closed doors and no press conference is planned.

 French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said that on Friday there would also be a European Commission meeting on the issue during a visit by Frost but this is yet to be confirmed by Brussels.

 The dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights has strained already troubled relations between Paris and London following Britain's exit from the European Union and has threatened to escalate into a full-blown trade war.

Watch: Brexit: David Frost due in Paris for talks over UK-France fishing dispute

 While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday made it clear that London's position had not changed, there are signs both sides favour diplomacy in a bid to avoid the situation worsening.

- 'All options' on the table -

 Attal emphasised that "all options were on the table" regarding future sanctions after Macron delayed implementing them to give the talks a chance.

 France has threatened to ban British boats from unloading their catches at French ports and to subject all British imports to inspections.

 Under a deal agreed by Britain and the EU late last year, European fishing vessels can continue to ply UK waters if they can prove they operated there in the past.

 But dozens of French boats have had their applications to operate in the UK's fish-rich waters rejected.

 The total volumes affected are tiny in terms of overall France-UK bilateral trade.

 But analysts say Macron is keen to take a hard line against Johnson as he eyes re-election in 2022 polls, while the British premier is also keen to talk tough in the wake of Brexit.

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