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Another fish fight: Why is the UK at loggerheads with France over fishing?

There is a disagreement about French vessels’ access to UK waters, and whose fault it is.

Image: PA

ANOTHER BREXIT ROW has come to the fore – this time, between France and the UK over fishing rights in the Channel Island.

After the very public row over the Northern Irish Protocol and the role of the European Court of Justice (which is yet to be resolved), and the ‘sausage wars’ a few months previous (which is apparently sorted), we now have to contend with a bitter fish fight between France and the UK.

So what is the latest row about, and why is it so tense?

How it started: 200 French boats and Jersey island

A row broke out earlier this year, after the UK and Jersey turned down applications from dozens of small French boats requesting to fish in British waters, in what Paris said was a breach of Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

France had asked the UK to issue 169 fishing licences to its vessels, but they had to prove they fished in Channel Island waters before Brexit – which many small vessels struggled to find the paperwork to prove.

Since then, this issue of fishing access to waters off Jersey and neighbouring Guernsey – both British Crown dependencies off France’s northern coast (meaning they are under the foreign affairs and security policy of the United Kingdom) – has sparked a series of indignant exchanges between London and Paris post-Brexit.

In May, tensions boiled over and French trawlers briefly encircled Jersey’s main port at St Helier, leading to a standoff that saw Britain send two naval boats, shadowed by French coastal patrol vessels.

jersey-fishing-dispute Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Severn returns to Portsmouth Naval Base from Jersey. Source: PA

In the aftermath, one French minister threatened to cut off electricity to Jersey if a resolution could not be reached.

But at the end of September, Jersey said it would grant temporary licences to EU trawlermen, following talks with representatives from France’s Normandy region where it was decided that new licences for EU vessels would be issued the following week.

Though Jersey’s 100 small-boat fleet exports lobsters, crabs and scallops to Europe via French ports, some Jersey fishermen do want to see the volume of EU boats in their waters reduced.

But the UK government didn’t issue enough licences

Tensions rose again a few days later, after the UK government said it would grant just 12 out of 47 applications for new licences to small boats from the EU to fish in its waters, provoking anger from France.

London said it has pursued a “reasonable approach”, issuing nearly 1,700 licences to EU boats to fish in Britain’s exclusive economic zone, which is defined as being 12-200 nautical miles from the coast.

A total of 117 have been issued for the 6-12 mile zone, where EU vessels must provide evidence to the UK of a track record of fishing activity in those waters.

Of France’s 169 licence requests made to the Jersey authorities, 95 were granted, with just 65 of those full licences and the rest temporary.

jersey-fishing-dispute A sticker on a boat in the harbour at St Helier. Source: PA

France began threatening retaliation, with its Maritime Minister Annick Girardin saying:

We see clearly that on all these issues, the British are dragging their feet… I want the licences back.

“Our patience has clear limits,” France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said on 5 October. “We’ve negotiated calmly and nicely for nine months now, that’s enough.”

How did Brexit spark the fishing feud?

When the UK left the EU, it also left the common fisheries policy, which since 1970 has allowed members access to European waters outside the first 12 nautical miles of each country’s coastline.

The Brexit deal outlined how EU boats could continue to fish in UK waters, but British fishermen would get a greater share of fish from its own waters.

Most of the share is being transferred to the UK this year, and there will be annual negotiations to decide how the catch is shared out between now and 2025.

The post-Brexit fisheries arrangement is something that has also irked Irish fishers.

Then a British trawler was detained

The scallop vessel Cornelis was ordered to divert to the port of Le Havre after the French authorities said it was fishing in French waters without a licence.

The French said that another British trawler had been fined for obstruction after refusing to allow police to board to carry out checks.  

The owner of the Cornelis, Macduff Shellfish, said the vessel had been fishing legally in French waters and called on the British Government to protect the rights of British fishermen.

weekly-cabinet-meeting-paris French Minister of Marine Affairs Annick Girardin leaves after the weekly cabinet meeting. Source: Sebadelha Julie/ABACA

French maritime minister Annick Girardin said that although the checks on the British boats were standard during the scallop fishing season, they had also been launched against “the backdrop of the tightening of controls in the Channel, in the context of discussions on licenses with the United Kingdom and the European Commission”.

How has the UK Government responded?

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the French threats appeared to breach international law and warned the UK would respond in an “appropriate and calibrated” manner if they were carried out.

In an emergency Commons statement this week, Eustice said the vessel had been granted a licence by the EU but there were reports that it subsequently had been removed from the list of vessels permitted to fish in French waters for reasons that were unclear.

george-eustice-at-downing-street Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice heads to Cabinet. Source: Tayfun Salci

Downing Street said it was continuing to seek talks with the French government and the European Commission to resolve the dispute over fishing licences.

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Eustice said the UK has licensed 98% of EU vessels that have applied for access post-Brexit – though the French say it’s closer to 90%, and the missing 10% is French vessels’ applications)

Eustice said more are expected to be granted following “constructive” talks with the European Commission. 

What will happen now?

French officials say that since they started pressuring Britain and Jersey publicly over the last few months more licences have been issued.

France is also trying to rally the rest of the European Union to its side.

Ten out of the other 26 members of the EU signed up to a statement condemning Britain’s “incomplete and inappropriate” response on fishing.

Experts see little prospect for British-French ties to improve – with elections due in France next April, President Emmanuel Macron is keen to keep the politically powerful and vocal fishing communities on side.

With reporting from AFP and Gráinne Ní Aodha

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