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FactFind: What exactly was said in French PM’s letter about UK fishing row?

The document has been the focus of considerable controversy.


AS THE FISHING row between France and the UK rumbles on, a letter about the stand-off from French Prime Minister Jean Castex to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has taken centre stage in the disagreement.

The simmering fish fight has threatened to boil over in recent days as President Emmanuel Macron’s government is incensed that the UK has not issued some French boats with licences since Brexit took full effect at the start of 2021.

Paris has vowed that unless licences are approved, it will ban UK boats from unloading their catches at French ports from tomorrow and impose checks on all products brought to France from Britain.

‘Lost in translation’

The long-running squabble was dramatically dialled up last Friday evening when Alex Wickham of the Politico news website tweeted a scanned copy of the letter from Castex to Von der Leyen along with the message:

“NEW: Huge escalation of French fishing row tonight. Extraordinary letter from French PM Jean Castex to European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen obtained by POLITICO. France tells Brussels it must demonstrate that Britain has been damaged by leaving the EU.”

Wickham added a follow-up tweet which claimed that France was asking for EU support on fishing and had told Von Der Leyen that “Britain must be damaged by Brexit”.

His tweets included a paraphrased translation of one section of the letter: “It is indispensable to demonstrate to European public opinion that more damage is suffered by leaving the EU than by remaining.”

In another tweet Wickham added: “The key line in the letter is where Castex explicitly admits the fishing row is about Brexit. He calls on the EU to cause ‘damage’ to Britain as a warning to other nations who might consider leaving in future. UK will seize on this as evidence of bad faith from France.”

Wickham’s Twitter thread quickly unleashed a flurry of similar reporting in UK news outlets, as well as an out-pouring of accusations from journalists, politicians and others that he had mistranslated the letter.

“Lost in translation I’m afraid,” France’s Ambassador to the UK Catherine Colonna tweeted.

Members of the British government quickly seized on the early reporting about the letter.

Brexit negotiator David Frost wrote: “That is why we are concerned and surprised by the comments seemingly made by @JeanCASTEX to @vonderLeyen that: ‘it is indispensable to show European public opinion that … it causes more damage to leave the EU than to stay in.’”

Boris Johnson was also quizzed about the matter at a press conference in Rome. Reporters at the scene said the UK prime minister was “visibly angry” when discussing the letter, which he said left him “puzzled”.

“I don’t believe that is compatible either with the spirit or the letter of the Withdrawal Agreement of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement [TCA],” Johnson said.

The Financial Times reported that Number 10 described the letter as stating “the UK should be punished for leaving the EU”. Wickham also reported that officials in the UK government were referring to the document as the “punishment letter”.

The mistranslation of the letter (more on that soon) also provoked a slew of scathing articles in pro-Brexit media outlets such as The Express, The Telegraph and The Spectator.

Wickham has said he is happy with his reporting and the translation his outlet, Politico, used. He said on Twitter yesterday: “Despite what some want to believe our translation and reading were correct and this is a story that rightly leads the news.”

So, what did the controversial part of the letter actually say?

The nub of the row boils down to whether Castex was recommending “causing” harm to the UK because of Brexit – hence punishing them – or “showing” the harm that leaving the European Union causes.

Two translations requested by The Journal of the paragraph show that Castex was actually seeking to demonstrate the damage that can result from leaving the EU. He was not calling for the UK to be damaged because of Brexit. This was a standard EU line throughout the Brexit deal negotiations as the union repeatedly stressed that countries outside the bloc could not have the same advantages as member states.  

Dr Edward Arnold, Professor in French and European Studies at Trinity College Dublin, translated the controversial paragraphs of the letter for The Journal:

It would thus appear necessary that the EU shows its absolute determination to obtain the UK’s full compliance with the agreement and also asserts its rights through recourse to all means at its disposal in a firm, unified and proportional manner. It is indispensable to show clearly to European public opinion that the respect of commitments entered into is not negotiable and it is as damaging to leave the Union as it is to stay in it.

This shows that Wickham’s translation (and Frost’s comments) left out a reference to “respecting commitments”.

Dr Eamon Maher, Director of the National Centre for Franco Irish Studies and a member of the lecturing staff in the Department of Humanities on the Tallaght Campus of TU Dublin, also translated the paragraph, although he said it was not “a perfect translation”:

“It therefore seems necessary for the EU to show its resolve in terms of obtaining full respect by the UK of the agreement and to foreground its rights by using all the levers it has available to it in a firm, united and proportionate manner. It is vital to demonstrate clearly to European public opinion that any commitments undertaken by either side are non-negotiable and that leaving the EU is more damaging than staying in it.

The independent translations differ slightly – underlining how the argument erupted in the first place. However, they are both clear that commitments undertaken or entered into were mentioned, a piece of missing context from much of the reporting. 

There is also no mention of punishment, something that Downing Street had interpreted from the paragraphs. 

Deadline looms

climate-cop26-summit Johnson greeting Macron at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow today. Christopher Furlong Christopher Furlong

With France’s deadline fast approaching, Britain warned Paris that it will take action if it does not withdraw its “unreasonable” threats to impose trade measures. 

There was no sign of the tensions as Johnson welcomed Macron to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow today, with the two leaders smiling and chatting for several minutes. 

However, Macron reiterated that the French ban on UK boats “will take effect at midnight tonight” if the two sides failed to achieve a breakthrough. 

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss demanded that France rescind its threat to disrupt cross-Channel trade or face legal action. 

Truss told Sky News that “we will use the mechanisms of our trade agreement with the EU to take action” if France pressed ahead with its plans. 

“The French have made completely unreasonable threats, including to the Channel Islands and to our fishing industry, and they need to withdraw those threats,” she said.

With reporting from AFP 

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