UK, France Reportedly in Last-Ditch Talks on Post-Brexit Fishing Licenses to Avert 'Chaos at Ports'
PM Boris Johnson earlier vowed to do "whatever is necessary” to protect British interests, voicing apprehension that the EU-UK trade agreement may have been breached in a heated row with France over post-Brexit fishing rights. His remarks followed Paris's threats to stop UK boats from entering its ports unless the licences issue is resolved.
London and Paris are believed to be holding last-ditch talks this weekend to hammer out a solution to the post-Brexit fishing rights issue
that has soured relations between the two countries, reported The Guardian.
The head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, was cited as warning of imminent disaster if Paris were to follow through with its recent threats
to impact cross-Channel trade amid the demand that London grant more licenses to French fishermen to access British waters.
“It will be a drama, it will be a disaster. It will be a chaos in your country because the trucks will not cross, it will be chaos at the ports … It has reached a ridiculous point, I would say,” said Puissesseau.
He revealed that he had already received instructions to stop British boats from being unloaded in Boulogne from 2 November Tuesday. Furthermore, border authorities at Calais were under orders to enforce tougher controls on lorries
carrying goods, he added.
“I hope that the British and [the French] find an agreement, we find a solution to get out of this point. I know that there is some discussions during the weekend so I do really hope,” said Jean-Marc Puissesseau.
It is believed the latest round of talks is focusing on what level of data might be accepted for issuing fishing licences to French boats and other enhanced flexibility on the contentious issue to avert fallout at the ports on Tuesday.
On Friday, reports suggested the European Commission was to propose to London a round of negotiations over the issue on the weekend, with a fishing industry source cited by Reuters as saying:
“There is a will to find a solution, it is not by pleasure that we are here and there is a will to find a way out. But they are determined. We have the same demands that we had before, we want more authorisations and we don’t want the orange [provisional licence until 31 January 2022] status, we have identified the boats that have all the elements of proof."
As UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gears up to face French President Emmanuel Macron in Rome at the G20 summit
, he earlier underscored that the UK will retaliate if cross-channel freight is disrupted because of the fishing row.
Speaking in the Italian capital on Saturday, Johnson was cited by Sky News as confirming his government would not rule out formal action under the post-Brexit trade and cooperation agreement if France was seen to have breached its terms. “No of course not, I don’t rule that out. But what I think everybody wants to see it cooperation between the European allies,” he said, adding that his government would do “what is necessary to protect British interests.”
“I am looking at what is going on at the moment and I think that we need to sort it out but that is quite frankly small beer, trivial, by comparison with the threat to humanity that we face,” he said, in a reference to climate change challenges discussed at the G20 summit ahead of next week’s Cop26 - the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, however, insisted the fishing row dispute was a test of the UK's credibility, telling the Financial Times:
"Make no mistake, it is not just for the Europeans but all of their partners. Because when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility."
Johnson and Macron are to meet one-on-one at the summit on Sunday.
France-UK Fishing Row Spirals
France earlier argued that the UK and the Crown Dependency Channel Island of Jersey had refused dozens of French fishing boats licenses to operate in their territorial waters. Accusing the UK of having issued 50% fewer licenses to French boats
than it was supposed to in line with previously concluded agreements upon withdrawal from the EU bloc, Paris has been lobbing threats at London.
The intimidation ranged from promises to block its ports and carry out security checks on British vessels to reinforced controls of lorry traffic and customs if London failed to issue more fishing licences. It even went as far as to fine two British boats and detain a UK scallop dredger, "Cornelis Gert Jan", escorting it to the Port of Le Havre on Thursday.
France also threatened to hike up tariffs on energy bills in Jersey. The UK side has responded by denouncing the “disappointing and disproportionate threats made against the UK and Channel Islands.” Commenting on the rhetoric coming out of Paris, UK Environment Secretary George Eustice warned that London could “respond in a proportionate way."
"We don't know what we'll do, they said they wouldn't introduce these measures until Tuesday at the earliest, we'll see what they do. But if they do bring these measures into place, well, two can play at that game and we obviously reserve the ability to respond in a proportionate way."
George Eustice explained in a series of interviews that the UK had issued licences to 1,700 vessels, including 750 French fishing boats, which amounts to 98% of applicants. The remaining ones purportedly could not prove they had fished in these waters previously.
Both Jersey and UK authorities have since repeatedly said they are open to any further evidence from applicants of having operated in their waters before.