Explained: Why is there a fishing row between France and the UK?

·6-min read
The boat detained by French authorities at Le Havre  (AP)
The boat detained by French authorities at Le Havre (AP)

Relations between Britain and France have plunged to a historic low amid a long-running row over post-Brexit fishing rights. 

Paris has threatened retaliation if ministers do not grant more licenses to French fishermen, with the European Commission saying the dispute must be settled by December 10. 

The main source of contention is the number of licences to fish in waters around the British coastline for smaller French vessels that can prove they operated in those waters before Brexit.

A fresh row erupted in October after French authorities detained a vessel during checks overnight off the northern port of Le Havre. French Seas Minister Annick Girardin later claimed the boat was not allowed to fish in French territorial waters.

The decline in relations has been intensified by a row over migrants crossing the Channel and the exclusion of Paris from the AUKUS defence pact. 

The Standard looks at how the fishing row erupted.

Watch: Rising to the bait? France-UK fishing row fuels post-Brexit bitterness

What is happening on December 10?

The EU Commission has set a December 10 deadline for the UK to resolve its fishing dispute with France. 

After this date, French ministers will seek to pressure other countries in the bloc to take punitive measures against the UK. 

This differs from retaliatory measures in the past which have only been threatened by France. 

In the latest act of protest on November 26, French fishermen blocked ferries attempting to access the northern port of Calais. 

Half a dozen boats blocked British freight ships as they approached the port. 

“We want our licenses back,” read an English-language banner hanging from one of the ships. 

According to the Daily Express, ministers in the UK could be forced to change the implementation of fishing rules in the Brexit deal in order to appease EU officials. 

A potential blockade on ports and increased checks on goods could cause chaos in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it is feared. 

What has caused the row?

France claims the UK has refused to grant its fishermen the full number of licences to operate in British waters that France says is warranted.

However, Britain says it will only issue licences to vessels that meet its criteria.

As part of the Brexit deal agreed by Boris Johnson, French boats under 12 metres in length are allowed to fish within the UK’s inshore waters.

In order to do so, trawlers must provide authorities with a record of their previous experience fishing in those areas and a relevant licence.

But French fury was sparked after the Government in London announced in September that it had approved just 12 of the 47 applications it had received from French small boats.

In December, the UK government said it had licensed nearly 1,700 EU vessels to fish in British waters, but did not give an update on the number of small vessels that had been given a license. 

What happened at Le Havre in October?

The fishing row deepened in late October after two British fishing boats were fined after one failed to comply with checks by police and the other was found not to hold a proper licence, according to the French maritime ministry.

One trawler was fined for obstructing checks after it initially refused a request to be boarded by police, the statement said. 

However, it was later not found to have been in breach of regulations.

France’s maritime ministry said the second boat was not on a list of UK vessels with licences granted by the European Commission and France. The boat was then ordered to divert to Le Havre.

Watch: Brexit fishing row explained: Why are the UK and France fighting?

What have the French threatened to do without a deal?

In retaliation, France’s minister for Europe Clement Beaune said last week punitive measures could include a ban on British trawlers landing their catches between the whole of the EU and the UK.

He told French radio network RTL last week: “It was the European Commission that told the British – so all of Europe together – that if you don’t make big gestures with a lot of licences on December 10, we are no longer in a European dialogue.”

On the potential ban by the French, Mr Beaune added: “It’s one of the possible options but it’s better, to be honest, to have European measures.

“All options are on the table, because it’s better to have a dialogue, but… if it doesn’t bear fruit we can take European measures.”

France has previously threatened to ban all British vessels from landing catches in its waters.

Paris has also pledged to ban all British seafood imports and impose extra checks on goods arriving from and leaving the UK.

What has Britain said during the row?

In their latest comments on the issue, a spokesperson for the UK government said “technical discussions” are continuing with the EU Commission and French authorities. 

They added: “Our approach to fisheries licences is evidence-based and completely in line with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. In total, we have licensed nearly 1,700 EU vessels to fish in our waters.

“Where vessels have provided the required evidence, we have issued licences and will continue to do so.”

They added: “We will continue to consider evidence in support of the remaining applications and discussions will continue with the European Commission this week.”

Downing Street has previously vowed to retaliate to any threats made by the French. Following the row in Le Havre, they insisted a response would follow and would be “appropriate”. 

“It will be calibrated,” they added. “We want to have further discussions with the French government and the EU. We stand ready to respond appropriately.”

What does the row signal?

The Anglo-French relationship - one of Europe’s most vital diplomatic partnerships - has hit arguably its lowest point in decades. 

The row intensified last month after 27 migrants attempting to reach the UK drowned when their boat capsized - reigniting a war of words between Paris and London over the crisis in the Channel. 

Boris Johnson sparked fury in France by publishing a letter to President Emmanuel Macron calling for further action in the wake of the tragedy. 

It prompted Paris to disinvite home secretary Priti Patel to a joint meeting with interior ministers from France, the Netherlands, Belgium and the European Commission to discuss small boat crossings – without UK officials or Home Secretary Priti Patel present. 

The bitter feud has seen reports Mr Macron has labelled Mr Johnson a “clown” and a “knucklehead”.

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