The French don’t want things to calm down

One of the many ironies of the bizarre fishing dispute between the UK and France is that the EU insisted during the Brexit negotiations that all contact be with Brussels and not with individual member states. France is now responsible for interpreting and monitoring the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement (ACT) which entered into force last January and covers fisheries. This is clearly a matter of commission, but France’s problem seems to be that the European Commission will not play the game. A minor dispute over the licenses of a few dozen small fishing vessels clearly needs to be settled by way of law. negotiation and, if necessary, arbitration. Shotgun threats that could escalate into a trade war involving other EU member states are hardly in the best interest of the EU as a whole, but the bureaucratic procedure does not suit French objectives here.

French threats to cut off the electricity supply to the Channel Islands and Britain, slowdowns in customs controls for goods entering France and bans on British fishermen from landing their catches in France were disproportionate, far-fetched and improbable. So it was no surprise when President Macron stepped back at the last minute earlier this week. We are now waiting to see if some or all of the threats will be restored after Lord Frost’s meeting on Thursday with French Minister for Europe, Clément Beaune. Beaune seems to have taken it upon itself to negotiate the European fisheries policy and may have to be slowed down by Brussels. It is more than likely that Macron will declare a victory citing the small number of additional licenses already granted by Jersey last week. We would no longer hear about the exaggerated assertions of the spokespersons of the Élysée on the subject of hundreds of missing licenses.

If the French decide instead to pursue their demands, a clever plan could be in play, to set the stage for much larger negotiations in 2026 when the TCA’s fisheries agreement ends. Alternatively, they can attempt to keep the British off balance for the much more serious negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which will come to a head in the coming weeks. The suspicion that Macron is shaking the nationalist cage in the face of a potentially serious right-wing challenge in next year’s presidential election may also be correct. However, the fact that Xavier Bertrand, president of the Regional Council of the Hauts-de-France region, which includes Calais and Boulogne, is also a presidential candidate may dissuade Macron from actions likely to divert trade from these ports.

Calls by the Financial Time for both sides to eliminate their threats are far off target. Threats obviously come from one side. In the ATT Fisheries Chapter, Article 497 covers the licensing of fishing vessels. As Caroline Bell notes, it is clear that applicants for a fishing license must comply “with the rules applicable to these vessels in the waters of the other party, including the conditions of authorization or license”.

Bell also notes that:

“Annex 38 of the ATT requires that ‘eligible vessels’ have access to the six to 12 mile zone to the same extent that ‘eligible vessels of each Party had access to that zone on December 31, 2020’. This does not mean that all French (or EU) vessels are automatically entitled to a license, because an “eligible vessel” is strictly defined as a “vessel of a Party which has fished in the area mentioned in the sentence previous for at least four years. between 2012 and 2016, or its direct replacement ”. In other words, proof of long-standing continuous fishing in the six to 12 mile zone before the Brexit vote is required …

“For the Channel Islands, an” eligible vessel “must have fished in the waters of Jersey and Guernsey” for more than 10 days during any of the three 12-month periods ending January 31, or between February 1, 2017 and January 31, 2020 “. This is really not an onerous threshold at all, requiring only proof of more than 10 days of fishing in one of the previous three years. That so many French vessels do not (have not been able to meet these conditions is at worst fraud and at best sheer opportunism and attached to a replacement vessel).

Why were the French boats not able to provide the supporting documents stipulated in the TCA? The ATT is actually vague on exactly how proof can be provided, but it appears the boats in question lack GPS links that could identify where they were on any given day. Even the most quite ordinary pleasure yachts of 12 meters or more would carry this equipment, so we have to talk about quite tiny craft.

Should the British just pay the Danegeld and provide the licenses to get rid of the French? The letter from French Prime Minister Jean Castex to the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen suggests that no. His letter said that “it is essential to demonstrate … that it is as damaging to leave the Union as it is to remain there”. Something may be lost in the translation, as the French Ambassador to London claims (including the curious implication that staying in the EU is also detrimental). However, the letter appears to confirm the deep-seated suspicion that France wishes to deter any other disgruntled member state from becoming AWOL. The FTworries that a growing Anglo-French divide undermines Western security may be justified, but it’s unclear what to do about it if France intends to provoke roast beef.

Dr Graham Gudgin was Director of the Northern Ireland Economic Center from 1985 to 1998, then Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He wrote a chapter on discrimination in Northern Ireland in The question of Northern Ireland, edited by Brian Barton and Patrick Roche, 2020 (Buy this book here).

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