In the long and (in)glorious history of Anglo-French maritime hostilities, a bad-tempered spat over access to fishing grounds in the Channel should merit nothing more than a brief footnote, if that. Britain and France have much in common and many interests that are closely aligned. But the dispute over a few dozen fishing licences is absurdly being blown out of proportion by both sides for small-minded political ends. A small argument could escalate into a damaging trade war and poison the broader ties between Britain and the EU. There are bigger problems in the world that call for Franco-British co-operation.
Fishing was always predicted to be one of the most hotly disputed issues in Britain’s divorce from the EU, and so it has proved. The French and British governments are at loggerheads over the granting of licences to French vessels operating in the UK’s 6-12 mile waters and those around Jersey. Under the terms of last December’s EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, French boats seeking continued access to these seas must have fished there in recent years. The contention is over the degree of proof French skippers need to show, especially around the Channel Islands. The French government believes the requirements have been made impossible for some to meet. Scores of French boats have been denied access, although many others have been licensed.
Incensed by the continuing delays — and the lack of dialogue over the process — Paris has vowed to retaliate. Unless there is progress by November 2, it says it will ban UK boats from landing their catches in French ports, step up controls on British boats and on lorries entering France, potentially snarling up trade routes. It also threatened to “review” electricity supplies to Britain and pressed Brussels to trigger trade penalties against the UK.
The French threats are excessive, provocative and probably of dubious legality. They extracted a few more licences from the Jersey authorities but not enough to defuse the stand-off. Now London has followed up, threatening extra checks on EU boats.
The problem is that for both Boris Johnson and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron confrontation seems to offer a bigger political dividend than de-escalation. The UK prime minister seems to be doing everything to keep Brexit wounds open. Nothing pleases his tabloid cheerleaders more than a fight with the French and it provides a useful diversion from shortages and rising costs at home. It is hard to see him changing tack.
The French president, meanwhile, is under pressure to stand up for French fishermen, a noisy lobby, with strong political support in north and western France. He faces re-election in April, and the nationalist right is setting the tone of the campaign. Macron is still smarting at the Australia-UK-US nuclear submarine deal. It was a major strategic setback for Paris but was celebrated in London, its most important military ally in Europe, as a feat of one-upmanship.
Paris is understandably contemptuous about Johnson’s refusal to honour his Brexit deal commitments in relation to Northern Ireland. On fishing rights, it feels it has the means to hold the UK to its promises. Disruption to cross-Channel trucking from onerous checks could cause real economic damage. The risk is it goes to far and Britain overreacts. Other EU countries are reluctant to allow the entire relationship to be defined by the interests of French scallopers and trawlermen, but sympathy for the UK in other EU capitals is in short supply. Paris and London need to negotiate a way of out of this tit-for-tat trap. There is too much at stake.