‘We could go bankrupt’ – What’s at stake for French fishermen in the Brexit fishing spat

In the dead of night, a French trawler cuts through the Channel's pitch-black waters on a hunt for cuttlefish that takes captain Pierre Lepretre and his crew across British lines.

'We could go bankrupt' - What's at stake for French fishermen in the Brexit fishing spat
French fisherman Pierre Lepretre worries for his future. Photo: AFP

For decades French fishermen have cast a wide net across the strait that acts as a natural border between Britain and France.

But as the clock ticks down to December 31st, when Britain's divorce from the EU becomes complete, they fear that London's promise to “take back control” of its territorial waters could leave them high and dry.

For Lepretre, whose UK catch makes up 70-80 percent of his income, being barred from British fishing grounds would spell ruin.

READ ALSO OPINION Why French fishermen should be allowed to fish in UK waters after Brexit


“If we can no longer go to the English side we'll go bankrupt,” the fisherman  said as he counted his morning's catch: 90 kilos of cuttlefish, 15 kilos of squid and 20 kilos each of red snapper and mackerel.

His boat is based in Boulogne-sur-Mer, about 40 minutes from the maritime border.

Grievances over fishing rights were one of the driving forces in the 2016 Brexit campaign, with British fishermen complaining of EU neighbours with more generous quotas plundering the country's stocks.

Within hours of Britain leaving the EU on January 31st this year, French fishermen found themselves barred from waters around the British Channel island of Guernsey – a spat that lasted a week.

With Britain and the EU both playing hardball over the terms of a wider trade agreement, there are fears of further standoffs.

In a leaked report last year, the British government anticipated that barring EU vessels could lead to “clashes between vessels”, “violent disputes” or even the “blockading of ports”.

To try and create goodwill, fishermen from Boulogne-sur-Mer have set up Whatsapp groups to liaise with their British counterparts on issues such as the location of British lobster pots that French trawlers should give a wide berth.

“It works well on the whole,” Lepretre said.

Fisheries have been a flashpoint in trade talks between the EU and Britain, with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier identifying it as one of the EU's top two priorities.

The EU wants any future deal with Britain to uphold the bloc's common fisheries policy, which shared out catch quotas based on 1970s trends.

Britain, which has vowed to become an “independent coastal state”, has pushed for annual negotiations on quotas that would significantly increase Britain's share.

But in a sign that London might be prepared to soften its position, the Guardian newspaper reported last week that Britain had offered a three-year transition period for European fishing fleets.

For Lepretre, as for many other fishermen in France where fish and seafood caught in British waters make up 30 percent of sales, the stakes are high.

His gleaming 19-metre trawler, which he ordered just two weeks before Britain voted to leave the EU, set him and his uncle back nearly a million euros, most of it borrowed.

“If I had known, I would never have signed (the purchase order),” said the seaman, who comes from a family that has been fishing in the Channel for three generations.

He worries that if EU fishermen are frozen out of British waters they will all fall back on France “and there will be big problems cohabiting”.    

The French take a particularly dim view of Dutch supertrawlers that were grist to the mill of pro-Brexit groups such as Fishing for Leave.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, Pierre's uncle Olivier Lepretre, director of the fishing committee of the northern Hauts-de-France region, believes there is only one solution.

France, Belgium, Spain and other coastal countries “should all take back control of their waters until new agreements are negotiated”. 

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‘Be ready to wait’: Your tips for getting a French visa post-Brexit

Now that Britain is out of the EU, just how much harder is the process of moving to France from the UK after Brexit? British readers share their experiences of applying for visas as 'third country nationals’.

'Be ready to wait': Your tips for getting a French visa post-Brexit

Whether you’re moving to France to live, or you’re a second-home owner wanting to spend more than 90 days out of every 180 in France, if you’re British you will now need a visa.

You can find more on how to apply for a visa, and how to understand what type of visa you need, in our visa section HERE.

But how these systems work in practice is not always the same as the theory.

To learn more about the process of getting a visa as a UK national, The Local asked British readers for their experiences of going through the system.

The consensus among respondents was that the whole thing was bureaucratic, though there were notable differences in experiences that ranged from the “easy” to the “complicated” and “time-consuming”, while the advice for future applicants was, routinely, have all your paperwork ready – and be prepared for a lengthy wait at one of the UK’s TLS centres


Like most visas, French visas for UK nationals must be applied for before you leave home. You can find a full explanation of the process here, but the basic outline is that you apply for the visa online, and then have an in-person appointment in the UK in order to present your paperwork. 

Sue Clarke told us: “As long as you get all your paperwork together correctly and in the right order, the time it takes to receive your passport back with the visa in it once TLS has sent it off is only a few days.

“TLS – the centre which works on behalf of the French Embassy to collate your application – is so very busy,” she added. “That part of the process took hours even when you have an appointment.”

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: What type of French visa do you need?

“The visa process itself was fairly well run, and a decision for the initial visa was quick,” wrote Ian Sheppard, who successfully applied for a visa in July 2022. 

“Although getting the follow up residence permit was a pain, [and] took longer than expected, and there was little to no communication with severely limited ways to get in touch about the application.”

Sheppard thought that, biometrics apart, the process could have taken place online, and wondered whether the follow-up residence permit application could be more closely linked to the initial visa application, “rather than effectively submitting the same application twice”.

Georgina Ann Jolliffe described the process as “stressful”. 

“A lot of the initial stage was unclear and I needed a lot of reassurance about the visa trumping the Schengen 90 days. (The Local helped on that one),” she wrote. 

“[The] lack of ready communication was very stressful. It could be slicker, however staff at Manchester TLS were excellent.”

Jacqueline Maudslay, meanwhile, described the process as “complicated”, saying: “The waiting times for the appointment with the handling agent (TLS in the UK) are long and difficult to book online. We applied for a long-stay visa and were given a short-stay visa, with no reasoning and no option of talking to anyone.  

“We had met every criteria for the long-stay visa. There needs to be a contact link with the French Consular website directly for discussing visa applications.”

Handling agent TLS’s website – the first port of call for applicants from the UK – was a target for criticism.

“The TLS system is probably the most user unfriendly system I have ever used,” wrote Susan Kirby. “It throws up errors for no legitimate reason and even changes data you have keyed in. Dates are in American format so you have to be very careful and it can be very difficult to edit.”

Bea Addison, who applied for a visa in September 2021 with a view to retiring in France, agreed that it was complicated and believes the French system is chaotic and badly organised compared to other countries. “Even staff in the French Embassy in London were not knowledgeable of the process and documentation,” she wrote.

“The renewal in France was applied for in July 2022 … we have received an attestation that we will be granted renewal visas, which expired in October 2022, but we have not yet received a date to attend the préfecture due to a backlog.

Second-home owners

Many of our survey respondents were not moving to France, but were instead second-home owners who did not want to be constrained by the 90-day rule.

They have the option of remaining residents of the UK and applying for a short-stay French visitor visa – which must be renewed every year.

Second-home owner Peter Green told us: “Our appointment with TLS was delayed by two and a half hours and the whole experience was chaotic.

“We now have to go through exactly the same process again to get a visa for 2023. With second-home owners there should be a fast track that just involves proving financial viability, nothing else has changed. The system needs to be fully computerised.”

Second-home owner Alan Cranston told us his application met with no problems, but came with “unwanted cost and effort”. 

“Our six-month visa was for our first stint at our house in France in the spring, and that then overlapped our second visit in the autumn which was under Schengen. How that is handled seems to be a muddle (we did not leave the country for a day at the end of the six months, as some advise),” he said.