Britain and France have been at loggerheads over post-Brexit fishing licences for UK waters since the start of the year. Both sides are now threatening imminent action – and mistranslations have not helped.
What’s at the heart of the row?
Under the Brexit trade and cooperation agreement (TCA), French fishers may continue to fish between six and 12 miles from the UK shore and off Guernsey and Jersey until 2026 if they have a discretionary licence issued by Britain.
To be granted that licence, they must have previously fished in those waters between 2012 and 2016 – but the two countries disagree over the evidence required for past activity, and how much of it should be needed.
France says that for the 6-12 mile zone and off Guernsey and Jersey, 210 licences have so far been granted whereas it requested 454. Authorities say only about 20 of Boulogne’s 112-strong fleet are currently permitted to fish in that zone.
The UK says it has granted about 1,700 licences, or 98% of EU applications. But that figure includes licences to fish in Britain’s exclusive economic zone between 12 and 200 miles from the coast, which were automatic under the terms of the TCA.
The nub of the argument is that in the disputed zones (6km-12km and around Jersey and Guernsey), the TCA defines which boats qualify for licences through their past activity – but it but does not specify exactly what proof is required.
What are both sides threatening?
France says the rules imposed by the UK, Jersey and Guernsey are unfair to smaller boats, which typically do not have the GPS equipment to prove past presence in UK waters. Britain says it is entitled to ask for the evidence it wants.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, confirmed on Sunday that if the UK did not change its approach France could ban UK boats from unloading at some French ports, carry out extra licence checks, tighten controls of trucks and reinforce customs and hygiene controls from Tuesday.
Both sides seem to believe the other has – or is about to – breach the terms of the TCA.
France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, said on Sunday that the UK had failed to issue a “significant amount” of licences and was “targeting one country”. This was “not a technical issue, it’s a political choice and a breach of the TCA”, he said.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, on Monday gaveFrance 48 hours to withdraw its “completely unreasonable” threats, warning that the UK could otherwise “use the mechanisms of our trade agreement with the EU to take action”.
What happens next?
It depends what measures France implements on Tuesday, and how the UK chooses to respond, but either or both parties could enter the TCA dispute settlement process.
This would entail first going into consultations, then, if those fail, triggering arbitration. If one side is found to have breached TCA, it must comply with the ruling within a reasonable period or risk the winning side withdrawing TCA benefits.
Given the rhetoric from both sides, and the domestic political advantage to be won from playing tough, it is hard to see a rapid de-escalation. There may be little appetite in the EU27 for a fish war, but there is also a sense Britain is pushing its luck too often.
Matters have also not been helped by mistranslations. Boris Johnson on Sunday cited a letter from the French prime minister, Jean Castex, to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, which he said called on the EU to “punish” Britain.
Other reports said the letter asked the EU to “cause damage” to the UK. The phrase might be better translated as: “It is vital to show European public opinion that respect for commitments entered into is not negotiable, and that it is more detrimental to leave the EU than to remain in it.”
The point was unfortunately phrased, but has been made by many EU leaders since the Brexit referendum.