Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 452, 4 November 2021

UK-France Fishing row: Conflict over catching rights escalates with slim signs of a thaw
Sourina Bej

In the news
On 3 November, France released the British trawlers that were detained amid the ongoing conflict over fishing rights. The Scottish-registered scallop dredger Cornelis Gert Jan left the northern French port of Le Havre, and the trawler's owner said, "the boat was detained last week, saying it did not have a license." Since October, the conflict over boat licenses to fish across the English Channel escalated, propelling France to threaten to block the UK goods.

On 1 November, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that talks over equitable fishing rights would continue as he stepped back from the threat to impose complete customs checks on the UK goods and ban the UK boats from entering some French ports. Even though the French transport minister called their position in the talks "a constructive one," the UK government spokesperson said the Brexit minister would "reaffirm our existing position" when they meet France on 4 November.
Additionally, on 3 November, tensions also eased when a French court ruled that a British scallop dredger seized by French authorities could leave immediately with no requirement to pay the EUR 150,000 deposit.
Issues at large 
First, the geo-economic tussle over the Channel. France and the UK have been at loggerheads over fishing permits in the English Channel Islands for several months. The French fishers have protested against the UK system, requiring the EU fishermen to prove prior fishing activities to gain permits. Britain had countered these protests on the ground that the terms agreed in Brexit trade talks support limited access to the Channel. In this, the Jersey port became a recent flashpoint when the post-BREXIT regulations were implemented. France had responded, saying no to any new conditions affecting all boats that had been agreed during the Brexit transition talks. Currently, France threatened a series of measures against the UK unless more licenses were granted by 2 November. On 6 October, the French fishing fleet owners threatened the Jersey administration with a two-week license deadline.

Second, post-Brexit conflict expansion. With conflict escalating over fishing rights, the UK now confronts tensions surrounding both its land and water borders. While the UK sees the English Channel as its bilateral conflict with France, the latter sees the right to fish as part of the Brexit agreement. Similarly, another fallout of the Brexit transition talks has been over the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK and EU are deadlocked over revising the Northern Irish protocol, the Brexit agreement that kept the region in the EU single market, and the customs union to prevent a land border. The UK's Brexit minister is due to meet the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič for further talks on 5 November, as both sides try to settle the issue before the end of 2021. With both fishing rights and trade rights in its water and land borders respectively in question, the UK will steadily hurdle to holding its end of the agreement.  

Third, talks return to ease post-Brexit tensions. After three years of talks with the EU, the UK exited the union in 2020, however, in over a year, the two sides have now returned to the negotiating table to ease the tensions over the implementation of the Brexit agreement. Furthermore, the difference in the letter and spirit of the agreement for both the UK and the EU have challenged constructive talks. The French spokesperson said technical talks would continue on, including with some officials from Guernsey but cautioned against expecting any big breakthrough. While not ruling out progress, they said they did not anticipate resolving the issues at the Paris meeting.

In perspective 
First, the current tensions are a rerun of the Jersey island conflict and an expansion of similar sentiments across the coastline. It involves boats from Boulogne and other northern French ports, which are much better placed to create a real crisis in Franco-British relations.

Second, the leader's approach to conflict resolution has been insufficient. There is a danger that the French government, who is seven months from an election and angered by the submarine dispute, could be seen relishing a confrontation with Britain. French fishermen's leaders – even pro-Macron members of the National Assembly – are talking about blockades of Calais and the Channel Tunnel. Similarly, Johnson's populist approach to conflict resolutions risks equal escalation as well.

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