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The UK’s fishing row with France descended into further confusion on Tuesday after French prosecutors rubbished a British minister’s claim that the scallop trawler at the centre of the dispute had been freed.
Environment secretary George Eustice said on Tuesday morning the boat had been released, as the Government welcomed France’s decision to back down on its threats to take punitive action against Britain over the post Brexit feud.
But a prosecuting source in Le Havre, where the Cornelis Gert Jan is being held, said the boat was still ‘subject to legal negotiations’ and would have to pay a deposit of €150,000 (£128,000) before she could return home.
The trawler’s Irish captain Jondy Ward is also still facing criminal trial in France, and remains on the boat in Le Havre along with his crew.
French lawyers acting for the fishermen are due in court in nearby Rouen on Wednesday, where they will discuss the bail bond and related issues.
Andrew Brown, the boss of MacDuff fisheries, which owns the boat, confirmed the upcoming legal appearance, saying: “Our understanding is that the vessel remains held at Le Havre at least until the hearing tomorrow.”
Asked about the boat in a series of broadcast interviews, Mr Eustice said: “I understand that vessel has now been released and I think there’s going to need to be some further discussions, clearly there was an administrative error at some point.
“We haven’t quite got to the bottom of that but that vessel I understand has been released.”
The confusion came as a truce was called in the dispute over fishing access with French President Emmanuel Macron withdrawing threats to introduce tougher checks at Channel border posts and plans to disrupt British trawlers a few hours before today’s deadline.
France is furious at what it sees as Britain’s failure to grant more fishing licences for its boats in the 6-12 nautical mile zone around the UK coast.
UK Brexit minister Lord Frost and France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune are due to meet for further peace talks in Paris on Thursday.
“We welcome the fact France has stepped back from the threats it was making last Wednesday,” Mr Eustice told Sky News.
“We’ve always said we want to de-escalate this and always said we have an ever-open door to discuss any further evidence France or the EU might have on any additional vessels they’d like to have licensed.
“France has clearly taken a decision not to implement some of the decisions they threatened last Wednesday, we very much welcome that but I think there’s going to be a very important meeting on Thursday between Lord frost and his opposite number, not just on fisheries but a wider range of issues as well.”
French MP Bruno Bonnell said Boris Johnson has been “bluffing all along” about the impacts of Brexit and that many French boats have had their licence applications delayed for 10 months.
He said Mr Johnson has been “continuously pretending that Brexit will have no impact, no effect, on the UK lifestyle”.
The Government says it has granted licences to 98 per cent of EU vessels which have requested permission to operate in British waters.
But the dispute centres on access for small boats, under 12 metres, wishing to fish in the British six to 12 nautical mile zone.
Only boats which can demonstrate they have fished in UK waters for one day in each of the years between 2012 and 2016 qualify for a licence.
National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations Chief Executive Barrie Deas told the BBC: “There will certainly be some relief that France has stepped back from its belligerent language and threats and Jersey seems to have made a bit of a gesture with temporary licences.
“It is important that licences aren’t just handed out like confetti to the EU vessels. The trade and cooperation agreement is quite explicit that only vessels that only vessels which have a track record of fishing historically within the UK six to 12 mile limit are eligible.
“Secondly, the foundation of sustainable fisheries management really requires access to be limited. If you can’t limit the fishing efforts in a particular fishery you have no hope of managing it through other means.”