France wants to continue fishing near the British islands of Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel, but their licenses expired this week and British authorities refused to renew the majority of them. This fishing saga, and the French threats to cut electricity cables supplying the two British islands, has been ongoing since the economic agreement governing relations between the EU and the UK after Brexit were signed in January.
A major debate topic during Brexit was the fishing quota enforced on Britain by Brussels. While Britain was a member of the EU, fishermen that failed to comply with the quota received penalties and fines. If quotas did not make life difficult enough for British fishermen, Brussels also allowed fishermen from other EU countries to fish in Britain’s territorial waters.
These rules and quotas were introduced in order to help preserve fisheries for future generations and to support the industry in many EU countries. More than others though, the French used their quotas in British territorial waters, particularly around the islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which are only 22 and 48 kilometers away respectively from France’s Normandy coast.
France Internationale reported on Tuesday that France threatened retaliatory measures on financial services if a post-Brexit fisheries deal could not be made. However, any potential compensation from Britain is unlikely to make up for job losses and damage to the entire industry.
Britain was supposed to issue fishing licenses for an area between six and 12 nautical miles, but Olivier Leprêtre, head of the local fishermen council, said that the UK had granted licenses to only 22 of the 120 vessels. Last Friday, anger escalated among French fishing crews over the issue to fish in British waters after Brexit. French media reported that more than 100 fishermen had prevented trucks loaded with fish coming from Britain in the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer. The same fishermen are now threatening to block the entire English Channel if British authorities do not renew their licenses.
It is noteworthy that on April 23, France called on the European Commission to “move decisively” in order to speed up the implementation of the fisheries agreement signed with Britain. Little has been done since April though and the situation in the past few days has finally reached boiling point.
French European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune said France was ready to retaliate against the UK’s move to deny fishing permits.
He told RTL: “We understand the frustration of our fishermen. We have said it at all levels in the UK that we cannot cooperate freely, on other matters as well, while they do not respect the signed Brexit deal. We hope not to get to that point, but there are retaliatory measures that are possible under the Brexit deal. In trade, to British products, for example. If they don’t respect the part on fishing, we can and will take action, collectively in the EU.”
Although British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is attempting to maintain a strong posture, it is likely that he will eventually concede to French demands, particularly after the threat of EU-wide sanctions. Threats of sanctions would be especially concerning considering the major energy and transport crisis that the UK is currently experiencing. A shortage of truck drivers, caused by a lack of workers following Brexit, has led to empty fuel pumps around Britain, creating long lines at gas stations and panic buying. Johnson has been forced to backtrack on his Brexit policy by advertising a three-month temporary visa to entice EU workers back to the UK. With the Johnson government looking to EU workers, it has received widespread backlash, with the Express newspaper even running the headline: “'Boris needs to get off the fence!' PM shamed for begging for EU help with petrol crisis.”
The fishing crisis is just one manifestation of the breakdown in relations between the UK and France. It is recalled that as recently as September 15, Australia ripped up a $66 billion military contract with France and announced AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the United States. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the pact a “stab in the back” and recalled his ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.
When explaining why the ambassador in London was not recalled, Le Drian said: “With Britain, there is no need. We know their constant opportunism. So, there is no need to bring our ambassador back to explain.” This very statement, made on September 19, encapsulates the very condition that Franco-Anglo relations are currently at – a climate of distrust. However, with an energy and transport crisis looming in Britain, as well as France threatening sanctions, it may well turnout that Johnson will have no other choice but to succumb to the demands of French fishermen, something that will likely cause hostile reaction from the most fanatical Brexiteers.