Conflict Alerts # 445, 7 October 2021
In the news
On 6 October, the French fishing fleet owners threatened the Jersey administration, in addition to the UK government, with a two-week deadline to grant them licences to catch in the UK waters. Upon the end of the deadline, the French fleets could block the Channel Tunnel and the ferry port of Calais, preventing imports from entering Britain, before the holidays began. The potential blockade follows after Jersey refused to grant fishing licences to 75 French fishing vessels to access its waters from 30 October.
On 6 October, the French Prime Minister Jean Castex told the Parliament that the UK is not honouring the fishing rights agreement under the Brexit deal. The Prime Minister said: "Britain does not respect its own signature. Month after month, the UK presents new conditions and delays giving definitive licenses ... this cannot be tolerated." Furthermore, France talked tough while hinting at curbing the energy imports through Britain.
Issues at large
First, row intensifies amid fuel shortages. The tension over fishing rights comes in the immediate backdrop of fuels shortage, increasing gas prices, and hoarding of daily essentials in the UK. The escalation followed signs of stockpiling of Christmas products such as frozen turkeys due to fears of empty shelves in Britain. Aldi, one of the biggest daily purchases supply chains in the UK, said it is selling 1,500 frozen turkey crowns a day. The panic buying is followed by two weeks of chaos at the petrol pumps after forecourts ran dry of petrol and diesel because of a shortage of tanker drivers. Amid this, the threat from France to curb energy imports adds to conflict escalation.
Second, the geo-economic tussle over the Channel. France and the UK have been at loggerheads for several months over fishing permits in the Channel Islands. The French fishers have been protesting against the UK system, which requires the EU fishermen to prove prior fishing activities to gain fishing permits. Britain had countered these protests on the ground that the terms agreed in Brexit trade talks support the limited access to the Channel. In this, the Jersey port had become the recent flashpoint when the post-BREXIT regulations were implemented. According to the rules, 41 permits have been issued based on fishing history between 2017 and 2020 to French fishing vessels to operate in Jersey's waters. France responded, saying no such consultation about any new conditions affecting all boats has been agreed upon during Brexit transition talks.
Third, energy blockade as negotiating tool in post-BREXIT reality. As the UK limits the fishing rights in the Channel, France has resorted to threatening with an energy blockade. According to the latest UK government statistics, France exported a net 8,700 gigawatt-hours of energy to Britain in 2020. The warning by France comes as Britain is set to enter a "difficult winter." But any action on energy may come with practical issues for France as Britain is also a transit point for electricity export. However, the threat to block is a new form of negotiating tactics to pressure the UK to hold their end of the Brexit-deal bargain.
Fourth, structural faults and a bureaucratic quagmire for inward-looking Britain. No one in the UK had voted for lower standards, Brexit red tape and documentation obstacles. Fishing communities throughout the UK had voted to leave the EU, only to find that additional costs have left them struggling to export their catches to Europe. In the current tension where there is also a lack of lorry drivers, there is a fear that red tape would kill 80 per cent of the industry when fish caught in the Channel are not exported, the vast majority of it to France.
The intensification of the fishing row could probably expand into a bilateral conflict over marine resources. The Channel had been historically at the heart of power tussle in Europe, but Britain's attempt at political isolation has costed its efforts at economic globalization. In addition, France's aggressive posture over fishing rights also signifies a nationalist attempt by Paris in drawing and sharpening its political boundaries with the UK.