Post-Brexit fishing row: Discordant voices after Macron, Johnson met; Truss says UK won’t ‘roll over in face of threats’

The UK’s foreign secretary has insisted the UK would not “roll over in the face of these threats”, as the post-Brexit fishing row with France continues to escalate.

There was little sign of a solution to the rift on Sunday after a meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson.

And on Monday Liz Truss continued the war of words, warning the UK could take legal action over the issues.

“The French need to withdraw those threats otherwise we will use the dispute resolution mechanism in the EU deal to take action,” Truss told BBC radio. “We’re simply not going to roll over in the face of these threats.”

France has threatened to bar British fishing boats from its ports and increase checks on UK exports from Tuesday unless more permits are granted to French boats to operate in British waters.

“We allocated the fishing licenses completely in line with what is in the trade agreement with the EU and the French need to withdraw those threats,” Truss added.

Dimitri Rogoff, who heads the regional fishing committee on the French coast near Jersey, said French crews have been providing paperwork for 10 months and don’t understand why some boats won permits and others haven’t.

He said he didn’t understand why Britain is making a big deal over “20 or 30 boats,” and that he hoped that the French government’s threats could “incite our British friends to be a bit more conciliatory.”

Macron and Johnson gave separate news conferences in Rome at the conclusion of the G20 on Sunday.

The two leaders met behind closed doors on the sidelines of the summit, but afterwards, each side gave contrasting accounts of what was agreed.

“I don’t want any escalation, but we must take things seriously,” the French president said. “My wish is not to go toward retaliation measures…It’s rather to find an agreement.”

But the British prime minister described the UK’s position as “unchanged”.

“I must say I was puzzled to read a letter from the French prime minister explicitly asking for Britain to be punished for leaving the EU,” he said — repeating a reported misinterpretation of what Jean Castex actually wrote, but consistent with a popular pro-Brexit narrative.

Earlier in the day, the meeting between the two leaders had already brought differing accounts.

The Elysée was quick to communicate, saying the French president and British prime minister had decided to work towards a rapid “de-escalation” of the toxic row that has threatened to blow up into a trade war and distract attention from the COP26 summit now underway.

AFP quoted a French presidency source as saying the two governments would seek to bridge gaps in the next few days.

Both sides would ensure that “practical and operational measures are taken as quickly as possible to avoid a rise in tension”, the source added. Differences related to “a few dozen boats”, and it was “perfectly possible” to reach a solution.

France called on the UK to “respect the rules of the game” and the terms of the Brexit deal it signed, the Elysée added.

UK position ‘unchanged’
But the war of words between the two governments quickly continued, the UK moving to contest the French account. “Our position has not changed”, a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said.

The UK appeared to put the ball firmly in the French court. “If the French government wants to come forward with proposals for a de-escalation of the threats they have formulated, they will be welcome,” the Downing Street official told reporters in Rome.

Paris also seems to have left open the possibility of retaliatory measures against London in protest at the lack of post-Brexit fishing licences granted to French fishing boats. The Elysée source added that the situation would be reviewed on Tuesday.

Sunday morning’s meeting in Rome between the French and British leaders was the first since the Australian submarine crisis provoked by the AUKUS deal, and the escalation of post-Brexit tension between Paris and London on other issues too such as fishing and migration.

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Earlier on Sunday, France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune took to Twitter — “to explain what’s going on on fisheries, beyond spin” — replying to a post the previous day by UK Brexit Minister David Frost.

France had negotiated “patiently and constructively” with the British for months “boat by boat”, Beaune said — to no avail.

“We do not lack just a few licences, but more than 40% of French detailed requests. For the EU as a whole, around 90% of the expected licences have been granted, but all the missing ones are French,” he tweeted.

On Saturday Frost said the UK wanted to set the record straight on “recent French rhetoric and threats, potentially leading to a breach by the EU of its Treaty obligations”.

He added that 98% of fishing licence applications had been granted — a figure contested by Beaune and others, and which refers to the EU as a whole, not France.

Under the Brexit trade deal concluded just before Christmas 2020, EU fishing boats can continue to fish in British waters if they obtain a licence.

But they need to prove that they previously were fishing there — a requirement that smaller French boats, lacking the appropriate technology, have found difficult to fulfil. Many have failed to secure licences from authorities in the UK or the Channel island of Jersey.

France argues the boats are well known to the British authorities and their past records are common knowledge, although some French commentators question their strict rights under the letter of the law.

Paris accuses London of acting in bad faith and of interpreting the Brexit agreement on fishing totally differently to the Northern Ireland Protocol — also part of an international treaty but which the Johnson government wants to rip up.

For the UK, a letter addressed last week by the French prime minister to the European Commission president proves that a greater political dimension is coming into play on the French side.

“It is essential to demonstrate clearly to European public opinion that respect for commitments undertaken is not negotiable and that there is more damage in leaving the Union (EU) than in staying in,” Jean Castex wrote in the letter to Ursula von der Leyen.

 

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