France to ask EU to start ‘litigation proceedings’ if fishing row not resolved

Tensions are likely to run high as Downing Street says it does not recognise an EU deadline of December 10.

The UK and France are caught in an ongoing dispute over post-Brexit fishing licences (Ben Birchall/PA)
The UK and France are caught in an ongoing dispute over post-Brexit fishing licences (Ben Birchall/PA)

France is planning to ask the EU to begin “litigation proceedings” if an ongoing row over post-Brexit fishing licences is not resolved.

The European Commission has said the dispute must be settled by December 10 – but Downing Street said on Thursday it did not recognise the deadline, threatening to further inflame tensions between the nations.

The row surrounds licences to fish in UK and Channel Islands waters under the terms of Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU – the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA).

The main source of contention is the number of licences to fish in waters around the British coastline for smaller French vessels that can prove they operated there before Brexit.

France says Britain has not handed out enough licences to its fishermen while the UK Government has insisted the overwhelming majority of applications have been granted.

France’s seas minister Annick Girardin said on Thursday that if the deadlock remained by Friday evening, France would request a meeting of the partnership council, which oversees the implementation of the Brexit agreement, to “note the UK’s failure to respect its signature”.

“If that is not satisfactory, we ask that litigation proceedings be opened by the European Commission,” Ms Girardin told a senatorial committee.

She said the proceedings could take “many months” but that “France will never give up its rights”.

“No-one should stay on the dock,” she said.

Ms Girardin said the UK had issued 1,004 licences but that 94 licences were still pending.

The UK Government has previously said it has licensed “nearly 1,700 EU vessels to fish in our waters”.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has accused the British Government of failing to keep its word on fishing licences, but said France wanted to cooperate with London.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday to set out France’s plans for its upcoming presidency of the EU, he said relations were “difficult” between the two countries because “the current (British) Government does not do what it says”.

Mr Macron said: “(The British government) signed a withdrawal agreement which requires commitments to our fishermen.

“Tomorrow we, alongside the European Commission, will find out if these agreements are not respected.

“There has been progress in recent weeks. I wish to salute that, there is a sincere re-engagement and I hope with all my heart that new paths open up.”

France’s minister for Europe Clement Beaune said on December 1 that the dispute was not a Franco-British issue, but a problem between the whole of the EU and the UK.

He called on the EU to take retaliatory measures against Britain if the December 10 deadline was missed.

No 10 said on Thursday the UK had “never set a deadline” itself and the EU cut-off point was “not one we’re working to”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I’m not aware of certainly any communication we’ve had from the French government, certainly not to the Prime Minister. There’s a technical process still ongoing based on evidence rather than set deadlines.

“We’ve never set a deadline. I recognise they themselves have set one but it’s not one we’re working to.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice was expected to hold further talks with EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius on Friday.

In his comments on Thursday, the PM’s spokesman added: “George Eustice spoke to commissioner Sinkevicius last night about the progress on a range of licensing issues and they agreed to speak again later this week to take stock.

“All the talks on this issue have been constructive.”

On December 1, Mr Beaune said French punitive measures – such as a ban on British trawlers landing their catches in French ports and tighter customs checks to hamper cross-Channel trade – remained “on the table” if a deal could not be reached.

He told French radio network RTL: “It was the European Commission that told the British – so all of Europe together – that if you don’t make big gestures with a lot of licences on December 10, we are no longer in a European dialogue.”

On the potential ban by the French, Mr Beaune said: “It’s one of the possible options but it’s better, to be honest, to have European measures.

“All options are on the table, because it’s better to have a dialogue, but … if it doesn’t bear fruit we can take European measures.”

It is not the first time the UK has faced potential punitive measures over the dispute – but previously France threatened to act alone, rather than alongside other EU states.

It had warned that Paris could block British boats from landing their catches in French ports and tighten customs checks from midnight on November 2.

But Mr Macron backed down at the 11th hour, saying negotiations must continue.

French fishermen have since blockaded the Channel Tunnel and major ports in a protest over the row.

The dispute sits against a backdrop of tensions between Britain and France, recently inflamed by the deaths of 27 people attempting to cross the Channel in November.

Amid the bitter feud, it was reported Mr Macron had labelled Boris Johnson a “clown” and a “knucklehead”.

A Government spokesperson said: “We continue to have technical discussions with the European Commission and French authorities.

“Our approach to fisheries licences is evidence-based and completely in line with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). In total, we have licensed nearly 1,700 EU vessels to fish in our waters. Where vessels have provided the required evidence we have issued licences and will continue to do so.”

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