OPINION: Why French fishermen SHOULD be allowed to fish in UK waters after Brexit

Fish are slippery. So is Brexit. Put fish and Brexit together and you have a political bouillabaisse of misunderstandings, exaggeration and lies, writes veteran France correspondent John Lichfield.

OPINION: Why French fishermen SHOULD be allowed to fish in UK waters after Brexit
Photo: AFP

The British government has promised to “take back our waters” after the UK leaves the European Union (assuming that the UK does leave). The British public has been encouraged to believe that there is an underwater El Dorado in the Atlantic, Channel and North Sea which is being “pillaged” by the French, Dutch, Danes, Spanish and others under the “unfair” terms of the EU fisheries policy.

There is a case for an adjustment of fish quotas in Britain’s favour as part of any final Brexit deal. But the hopes of some British fishermen, and the expectations of an ill-informed public, have been absurdly overblown by the rhetoric of UKIP, Conservative Brexiteers and the environment secretary, Michael Gove.

There will be no reasonable Brexit outcome for Britain unless it accepts a few simple truths. Continental and Irish fishing boats have been catching fish in “British waters” for many centuries. To exclude them, or to reduce their catches radically, post-|Brexit, would all but destroy the French, Danish and Dutch fishing industries. Boats from the Pas de Calais, Normandy and Brittany take more than half their catch within Britain’s potential economic zone or 200-mile limit.

A large part of the British industry depends on overnight, smooth exports of fish and shellfish to the continent and especially to France. That trade matters far more to many of the “fragile British coastal communities” championed by Mr Gove and UKIP than a huge “repatriation” of “British” fish now caught by EU boats.

It will be politically impossible for France or the EU to continue to facilitate this €1 billion trade if continental fishing fleets are locked out of British waters.

(Fishing boats travel in the waters off the port of Grandcamp-Maisy on the Normandy coast, north-western France. AFP)

This is the true context of the somewhat convoluted remarks about fish made by President Emmanuel Macron at the Brexit summit in Brussels on Sunday. The remarks caused a predictable explosion of righteous indignation in parts of the British media. The anger was based largely on ignorance – by British commentators and by President Macron himself – of the facts about fish.

Macron said that the EU would have “leverage” in the final stage of the Brexit negotiations on permanent trade arrangements between the UK and the 27. On issues such as level commercial playing fields, on technical standards and on fishing access, Britain would have to cede ground. If Britain refused to do so before the transition period ends in December 2020, it would risk being marooned permanently in the “backstop” of membership of the European customs union.

This was interpreted by British commentators as a “threat” to lock the UK into the “hated backstop” unless it gave way on fish. If that was what he truly meant, Macron was holding a gun to his own head.

Fish is excluded from the terms of the backstop. If transition ends without an agreement in 2020, the EU fisheries policy will no longer apply in British waters. French boats would lose access rights, which go back in some cases to the Middle Ages. Some threat, Monsieur Macron.

Small wonder that the French government scrambled today to explain the President’s remarks as merely a “commitment” to fight hard for French fishermen. In truth, other, more effective, threats are available to him and other EU governments.   

If there is no hard-Brexit or Brexit is not reversed by a second referendum, there will inevitably be a trade-off on fish between the UK and the EU 27. Continued access for EU boats will be swapped for continued easy access to European markets for British lobster, crabs, langoustines and some white fish.

(The remains of a small boat flying European flags is burnt on a bonfire during a demonstration in Whitstable, southeast England on April 8, 2018 against the Brexit transition deal that would see Britain continue to adhere to the Common Fisheries Policy. AFP)

Cue outrage on the part of Brexiteers and the blinkered, maximalist part of the British fishing industry. But consider the facts.

Continental and Irish fishing boats take about 58 per cent of the fish caught in British waters under the terms of the EU fisheries policy launched in 1983. French boats take about 8.4 per cent.

French quotas for cod and sole are generous – too generous – in the Channel, where the fish, for some reason, mostly swim on the British side of the “median line”. British boats are allowed only about 8 per cent of the cod caught there.

But, in UK waters overall, British boats take 71 per cent of the cod; 80 per cent of the haddock; 58 per cent of the mackerel; 85 per cent of the langoustines. A large part of the EU catch consists of inedible fish netted by the Danes for pig-feed.. Much of the French catch consists of species like Saithe and Whiting which the French eat but the British don’t.

It is reasonable that British boats should have some improved shares if Britain does split from the EU. The scope for improvement, except in the Channel, is not as huge as Brexiteers claim.

In any case, it is absurd to imagine that France could ever agree to a friendly EU divorce with Britain which would, in effect, destroy the French fishing industry.

You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @john_lichfield.



Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.