The promised Franco-British war has been cancelled or maybe postponed. The row over 186 fishing licences (or 80 or 137) has not been resolved but there are signs that progress is being made below the surface.
The British Brexit minister Lord Frost and the French Europe minister Clément Beaune agreed in Paris on Thursday to meet again next week. Officially, they didn’t agree on much else, not even how many licences for small French boats to fish in English and Channel Islands inshore waters are disputed.
They would make a good double act – “Frosty and Beaune”. Frosty would have to be the funny one because his lordship’s presentation of the facts is never quite straight.
He peddles the claim that “98 percent” of post-Brexit fishing licences have been delivered by the UK to EU boats. The real figure for French boats in the inshore waters (6 to 12 miles) in dispute is nearer to 50 percent.
Non-fish people look away. Here is my reply to a dishonest kettle of fish dumped on Parliament yesterday by the British government which purportedly “clarified” numbers at the heart of the UK-French dispute about fishing licences. 1/11
— John Lichfield (@john_lichfield) November 4, 2021
France has suspended its threatened sanctions against Britain, including lengthy administrative checks on all freight arriving at the Chunnel and Channel ports. Britain says that France was forced to back down because it had no support in Brussels. France says that all possible measures of ‘rétorsion‘ remain on the table but Britain has, finally, agreed to look at the licence row at high, political level.
One important advance, I understand, is that the British and Jersey governments have agreed to reconsider the question of licences for “replacement vessels” – new boats bought by French fishers which don’t have the required track record of fishing close to the English and Channel Islands shores in recent years. About 48 extra licences are involved.
There is no doubt that France wants a solution but is also wants more licences. It is unclear whether Boris Johnson’s government wants a solution or cares very much about fish either way.
There are senior figures in Paris and Brussels who fear that on fish – and on a fundamentally more important issue, Northern Ireland – the British government wants constantly to pull the bandages off Brexit wounds. It would much rather have the propaganda value of constant rows with Europe – and especially France – than patiently build a new relationship with the continent and Ireland.
My own guess is that the fish dispute can be resolved – I don’t say WILL be resolved – in the next few days. Northern Ireland is another matter. A big UK-EU confrontation on the Irish Sea trade border now looks likely, with Britain pulling the Article 16 “emergency brake” on the Brexit treaty.
In the context of a very serious UK-EU confrontation on Northern Ireland, which could unravel the whole Brexit treaty, it’s difficult to imagine a Franco-British “side deal” on fish.
But what does French public opinion make of the fish war (temporarily postponed)? It directly affects, at most, 1,000 people and an infinitesimal part of French GDP.
The suggestion in pro-Brexit British media that President Emmanuel Macron has invented the row for political reasons – just to be seen to be bashing the British before next April’s presidential election – is absurd. There are few French votes in fish and almost none in bashing Britain.
The licence dispute has been covered in reasonable detail by the French national media – and much greater detail by Ouest France and La Voix du Nord, the excellent regional newspapers which circulate in Brittany, Normandy and the Pas de Calais.
There has been none of the jingoistic and misinformed nonsense which has occupied the front pages of even once serious British newspapers like the Daily Telegraph in recent days.
On the other hand, Macron has put himself in an exposed position with the threat to disrupt, in effect, British truck traffic to the continent if no agreement is reached.
Legally, France has a right to do so. Individual EU member states decide how to implement the European rules for trade with “third countries” (which is what Britain now is).
The allegations that France is already imposing onerous checks on the southern side of the Channel are, I’m told, untrue. There are many other finnicky EU rules which France has chosen to ignore or suspend. Paris would be within its legal rights to “work to the rule book” in retaliation for a no-deal on fish licences.
It would not take much of an extra check on each lorry arriving in Calais or Dieppe or Ouistreham to create huge queues on the English side of the Channel. By immobilising trucks, this would rapidly also gum up EU exports to Britain – just before Christmas and at a time when UK supply chains are already stretched to breaking point.
Hence Macron’s dilemma – or trilemma. He has a legal right to carry out the threat if Britain fails to resolve the fish licence row. But it would be a big political escalation to do so. Brussels and other EU governments might not be happy (especially while there is still some hope of resolving the Northern Ireland sea border dispute).
On the other hand, Macron has also placed himself in a position where there would be domestic and electoral political risks in NOT going ahead with his threat to impede UK trade.
There may be few French votes in fish but Macron’s rivals in next year’s election would be delighted to accuse him of talking tough and acting weak. They don’t care a sprat for French fishers but they would be delighted to accuse him of betraying them.
Oh what a lovely war.