Macron postpones sanctions for more talks as fishing row deadline passes without breakthrough

Ireland has backed France in the dispute

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 02 November 2021 00:20
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Britain, France again at loggerheads over easing fishing row

President Emmanuel Macron has postponed threatened sanctions in the row over post-Brexit fishing rights in the English Channel, giving Britain until Thursday to reach a resolution.

The partial climbdown came three hours before Paris was expected to begin retaliatory measures, such as closing French ports to UK fishing boats and imposing tighter checks on goods coming from Britain – or even targeting electricity supplies to the Channel Islands.

Talks to end the deadlock over French access to waters around Jersey and Guernsey have resumed, Mr Macron said.

A Downing Street spokesperson welcomed the move, which postpones French sanctions until after a planned meeting on Thursday between Brexit minister Lord Frost and his French counterpart, Clement Beaune.

The closure of French ports to Jersey and Guernsey trawlers would shut off their main source of revenue, as most land their catch in France due to a lack of commercial processing facilities in the Channel Islands.

Britain says it has “robust contingency plans in place” to respond to any French action – although there are no plans to call in the Royal Navy.

“We welcome France’s acknowledgement that in-depth discussions are needed to resolve the range of difficulties in the UK/EU relationship. Lord Frost has accepted Clement Beaune’s invitation and looks forward to the discussions in Paris on Thursday,” the spokesperson said.

The row threatened to overshadow Boris Johnson’s efforts to secure agreement on climate change action from world leaders at Cop26, including Mr Macron.

Ireland backed France in the dispute, with Prime Minister Micheal Martin calling for any resolution to be independent of discussions over the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Jersey government’s award of 49 new licences to French boats, agreed last week, looked unlikely to satisfy Paris, as the permits allow the vessels access only until the end of January to give operators time to provide evidence that they have fished in the island’s waters historically.

Under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, vessels must prove that they operated in the area for at least one day a year in the four years before 2016. There are suspicions in the Channel Islands that ships that have never fished in the area are trying to expand operations into their lucrative scallop fields under cover of Brexit.

The Jersey Fishermen’s Association (JFA) has called on the island’s authorities to respond in kind to any sanctions by closing off its whelk and scallop fisheries, and banning dredging and trawling “with immediate effect for a period of six weeks”.

JFA president Don Thompson said: “We now have a situation where our local fleet are tied up, as Jersey’s fish exporters are prevented from accessing European markets and our fishermen are unable to land into France.

“At the same time, we watch as French vessels continue to fish with licences valued at £14m – issued free of charge by Jersey – in Jersey waters, on Jersey’s fish stocks, and land back into France without constraint.”

Jersey’s minister for external relations, Ian Gorst, called on France to “move away from all of that silliness” about sanctions and focus on the technical issue of providing the evidence so that licences can be issued.

It would be “completely unprecedented” for the French to interfere for political reasons in a private contract to supply electricity to the island, which receives almost all its power from France, he said.

“They are a large nation, we are a small island,” said Mr Gorst. “Let’s deal with what was agreed in the trade deal rather than seeking to bully and threaten.”

Calais MP Pierre-Henri Dumont said France would back “harder negotiations” to make Britain “understand that fishing rights are very important for us and that was part of the deal”.

“We can find retaliation on scallops. We can find retaliation on docking in France. We can find retaliation on electricity,” said the Republican MP. “That’s on the table.”

Dimitri Rogoff, who heads the regional fishing committee on the French coast near Jersey, said French crews had been providing paperwork for 10 months and don’t understand why some boats have been given permits and others have not.

He said he did not understand why Britain was making a big deal over “20 or 30 boats”, and that he hoped the French government’s threats could “incite our British friends to be a bit more conciliatory”.

The UK government says that it has given licences to 98 per cent of all EU vessels seeking access to UK waters – nearly 1,800 in total. But France said the total was closer to 90 per cent, while the rate of approvals has been far lower for the areas around the Channel Islands.

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