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UK vows action if ‘French don’t back down’ in fishing row

Britain on Monday warned France it will take action if Paris does not withdraw "unreasonable" threats to impose trade measures in an increasingly acrimonious row over post-Brexit fishing rights.

UK vows action if 'French don't back down' in fishing row
French President Emmanuel Macron talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the G20 of World Leaders Summit. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that Britain must give ground in a post-Brexit fishing dispute or France will trigger trade reprisals this week, saying: “The ball is in Britain’s court.”

But Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News on Monday that “we will use the mechanisms of our trade agreement with the EU to take action” if Macron goes ahead with his plans.

“The French have made completely unreasonable threats, including to the Channel Islands and to our fishing industry, and they need to withdraw those threats,” she said.

“If somebody behaves unfairly in a trade deal you’re entitled to take action against them and seek some compensatory measures.

“And that is what we will do if the French don’t back down.”

ANALYSIS: Why the new fishing row between France and UK could get nasty

Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome yesterday to discuss the row over fishing rights that threatens to turn into a full-blown trade war.

Macron’s office said the leaders had agreed to work on “practical and operational measures” to resolve the dispute in the coming days, and were united on the need for a “de-escalation”.

But Downing Street denied any such agreement, and insisted it was up to Paris to back down on a threat to trigger trade reprisals against British fishing catches and other goods from Tuesday.

“If the British make no movement, the measures of November 2nd will have to be put in place,” Macron told reporters on Sunday, while adding that he “hoped there would be a positive response tomorrow”.

France is incensed that Britain and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey have not issued some French boats with licences to fish in their waters since Brexit took full effect at the start of 2021.

Paris has vowed that unless licences are approved, it will ban UK boats from unloading their catches at French ports from next Tuesday and impose checks on all products brought to France from Britain.

The threat of “proportionate and reversible measures” against Britain was reaffirmed on Twitter on Sunday by French Europe minister Clement Beaune.

Jersey’s Minister for External Relations Ian Gorst said on Monday that his officials had followed the terms of the Brexit deal, which stipulates that boats should only be granted licences if evidence is presented that they fished in the waters before 2016.

“We’ve really tumbled over ourselves to be as engaging and as reasonable as possible,” he told Sky News.

“And so to hear that tomorrow, the French will take countermeasures, it’s extremely frustrating. I mean, it’s bordering on they’re just being silly.”

Simmering feud

The simmering feud over fish has already seen a British trawler detained in a French port and Paris’s ambassador in London summoned to the Foreign Office for the type of dressing down usually reserved for hostile states not allies.

The dispute has taken time out of both leaders’ packed schedules when they are working hard on the climate change agenda heading into the UN’s COP26 meeting which got underway in Glasgow on Sunday.

Johnson’s own focus in the Macron meeting was on persuading the EU to amend a post-Brexit protocol governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, his spokesman added.

Johnson himself said he was “puzzled” by a strongly worded letter from French Prime Minister Jean Castex, urging EU chief Ursula von der Leyen to punish Britain over Brexit.

“I don’t believe that that is compatible with either the spirit or the letter of the Withdrawal Agreement or the Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” he said, referring to UK-EU accords.

On Saturday in Rome, Johnson complained to von der Leyen that the French threats were “completely unjustified”.

London is warning it could activate a Brexit dispute tool for the first time, exposing all of the EU to potential UK trade measures, if France executes its threatened actions on Tuesday.

EXPLAINED: Why are France and the UK fighting about fish?

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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: France has two presidents – one is confident, the other weak and directionless

France has two Emmanuel Macrons: one is strangely depressed and directionless, the other confident and clear, writes John Lichfield. But which one will emerge in his second term as president?

OPINION: France has two presidents - one is confident, the other weak and directionless

There is a global Emmanuel Macron, confident and clear; and then there is a domestic Emmanuel Macron, who sometimes appears petulant and indecisive.

Global Macron is admired by many people outside France for his eloquence and his intelligence. He is also mocked and feared by some people abroad (especially in the Brexit camp in Britain) for his alleged pretentiousness and arrogance (in other words for his eloquence and intelligence).

For Global Macron, it has been a good couple of weeks. 

His speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week was the best given by any world leader.

He placed the Ukraine war in a sweeping, global and historical context, lambasting allegedly “neutral” countries for failing to stand up for the core UN principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The “fake” non-aligned countries were, he said, betraying not just the values of the UN but their own interests.

Macron has also been word perfect in his tributes to the Queen.

He obtained little credit for that fact from the hardest-line,  professional Macron-haters in the UK media. They preferred to concentrate on the fact that he wore posh trainers during an informal visit last weekend to the enormous queues of people waiting to file past Her Majesty’s coffin in Westminster.

King Charles has, however, seized on this opportunity to improve relations between France and Britain which Liz Truss had ignored. After a dinner with Macron in London last Sunday, the new king is reliably reported to have decided that his first state visit next year should be to France.

So much for the global Macron.

The other Macron, the domestic president, is newly re-elected but strangely weak and directionless.

His popularity in opinion polls is fading. He seems unable to come to terms with his loss of his parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in June. He has yet to give a clear road-map for his second term to his newly renamed Renaissance party and their centrist allies.

(REMEMBER: You can listen to John Lichfield discuss the crisis on the French left and the mixed fortunes of Emmanuel Macron in the latest episode of our Talking France podcast below)

He has alternated in recent weeks between Blood, Sweat and Tears warnings to the French people that they face a cold and difficult winter and a generous (but reluctant) decision to extend domestic energy subsidies for another full year.

He has alarmed some of his own allies by raising the possibility that he might use his emergency constitutional powers to push pension reform through a divided National Assembly.

At the same time, he has pressed ahead with his vague plan for a grandiloquently-named Conseil national de la Refondation (National refoundation council). This body is supposed to find common ground between Left and Right, unions and bosses, to “refound” the French welfare state created just after the 1939-45 war.

On the one hand,  Macron says that he wants to find a new social consensus for the 21st century. On the other hand, he says that he wants to charge, without negotiation, into the social and political minefield of pension reform.

In a briefing with journalists earlier this month, the President suggested that he could avoid a lengthy negotiation with unions and the parliament to increase the standard French retirement age (now in theory 62). Changes in system could be tacked onto the annual social security budget next month and then pushed through the Assembly, in effect, by decree.

This week, the government back-pedalled. No decision has yet been taken, they say. One of Macron’s principal allies, the veteran centrist leader, François Bayrou, warned that any attempt to impose such a transformation on French lives by force would be a calamity.

How can we explain the two Macrons?

Partly, they reflect the constitutional powers given to French presidents. On international affairs and European affair, Macron can go largely his own way. On domestic policy, if he has no majority in parliament, his powers are limited.

I believe, however, that the problem runs deeper. There have been reports for months that Macron suffered after his re-election in April from a “drop in energy” or a period of depression.

The second half of his first term had been brutally occupied with non-stop management of the Covid and Ukraine crises. His attempts at mediating with Vladimir Putin had been a discouraging failure.

After his victory over Marine Le Pen, Macron drifted for weeks, delaying his decisions on a new Prime Minister and a new government. He was strangely absent from the parliamentary campaign in June (well below the limits imposed by his position as head of state).

Macron’s distraction contributed to his failure to win a new parliamentary majority; his lack of a majority has, I believe, compounded his mood of indecision and depression.

What to do with five years of a second term? Should he accept that his only role is now crisis-management? After all there are crises enough to manage.

Is the career of the self-proclaimed revolutionary of 2017 finished at the age of 44?  He cannot run again in 2027. He faces the prospect of five years of managerialism and drift while attention switches to his possible successors, from Edouard Philippe in the centre to Marine Le Pen on the Far Right.

“Macron is a magician who has lost his wand,” says one pro-Macron parliamentarian. “He’s still searching  for a way forward, a sense of direction. In short, he has the blues.”

By comparison with French politics, international crises are simple. Macron has clear ideas about the place of France and Europe in the world. He can express himself, both off the cuff and in set-piece speeches, with elegance and intelligence.

Macron has had no other position in elected politics than President of the Republic. He has no background as local or parliamentary politician. The prospect of five years of grinding negotiation to achieve quarter-baked reforms is, I believe, appalling to him.

Hence, his domestic zig-zagging.

He faces three choices in the next few months. He can accept a role as a manager of crises and minimal reforms; he can risk a Yellow Vest-type revolt by using, maybe abusing, his limited constitutional powers to impose change.

Or he can hope for an opportunity in the first half of next year to call a new parliamentary election.

Which way will he go? I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Emmanuel Macron.

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