In a growing disagreement over fishing permits that has exacerbated tensions after the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, French officials penalised two British fishing boats and detained one in port overnight Thursday.
The British government has warned France that it would reciprocate if French authorities carry out threats made late Wednesday to ban British boats from several French ports and intensify security checks on British ships. France has also hinted at limiting electricity supply to the Channel Islands.
U.K. Environment Secretary George Eustice told parliament, “We believe these are disappointing and disproportionate, and not what we’d expect from a close ally and partner.”
Eustice continued to slam the French, saying, “The measures being threatened do not appear to be compatible with the trade and cooperation agreement or wider international law, and if carried through will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response.”
Relationships between London and Paris have deteriorated since the United Kingdom exited the EU’s economic orbit in January as the countries on either side of the English Channel try to figure out their future post-Brexit course.
The United Kingdom and the Channel Island of Jersey refused hundreds of French fishing vessels authorization to operate in their territorial seas last month, prompting outrage in France. Several more licences were also awarded. The limits, according to France, are in violation of the post-Brexit deal that Britain struck when it pulled out of the EU.
According to a French government spokesperson, the number of fishing permits awarded by British authorities has increased after weeks of discussions, but the total still amounts for 50% of what France feels it is “entitled” to, according to British authorities.
“We have worked with the British, we gave them all the requested data, documents, information to back these (license) requests,” Gabriel Attal said. “Our patience has reached its limits.”
That is disputed by the United Kingdom. The government claims to have approved 98 percent of European vessel fishing licence applications, but there is a disagreement about 31 boats that the UK claims did not provide documentation to back their applications.
The two British boats were punished by French authorities in this context, one for failing to comply with police inspections and the other for not having a valid licence. The penalties were imposed as a consequence of increased boating and licencing inspections, according to the French Sea Ministry.
Clement Beaune, France’s Europe minister, said French TV news station CNews, “We have been extremely patient … our fishermen have been extremely responsible.”
“From Nov 2, it’s over. We will engage in dialogue if the British want to, but we are taking retaliatory measures.”
France “doesn’t exclude” moves that target Britain’s energy sources as part of the retaliatory measures, Beaune and French Minister of the Sea Annick Girardin said in a joint statement. The threat, according to Attal, was aimed at the Channel Islands, which depend significantly on French power.
“To be very frank, I’m not happy about these measures,” Beaune later stated at a think tank event hosted by the European Policy Centre. “We have to defend a very clear specific interest — fisheries — because it’s important and there is no reason why we should sacrifice it.”
“it’s as simple as that,” he continued, “Either we increase (the retaliation) if the situation deteriorates, or we withdraw if the situation improves.”
Jersey is a British Crown dependency outside of the United Kingdom that has the authority to regulate who is permitted to fish in its territorial waters. It lies barely 14 miles (22 kilometres) from the French coast. It has given licences based on its interpretation of the UK-EU trade agreement and has accused France of behaving unreasonably.
The “tit-for-tat” activities, according to Barrie Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations in the United Kingdom, are “unhelpful.”
“It may be normal enforcement action,” Deas told the BBC, “but against the background of the threatening noises coming from the French government, it’s very concerning,” Deas told the BBC. “France seems determined to escalate this issue about licenses, and I suppose we have to wonder why.”