The United Kingdom has warned France it could take retaliatory measures if Paris presses ahead with threatened sanctions amid an acrimonious post-Brexit row over fishing rights.
British Environment Secretary George Eustice said on Friday that London reserved the right to respond to any action “in a proportionate way”, with the two sides at loggerheads over the number of licences the UK has handed French vessels keen to fish in its territorial waters.
Paris has accused the UK of unfairly restricting trawlers from operating in its waters around the Channel Island of Jersey, a British Crown dependency that lies 22 kilometres (14 miles) off the coast of France. It says London’s actions violate the post-Brexit agreement the UK signed in December 2020, 11 months after it formally left the European Union on January 31 last year.
Under the deal, EU trawlers seeking to fish in British waters following the UK’s departure from the bloc had to apply for new licences to do so. London was obliged to provide those licences provided the boats could prove that they had operated in the waters prior to Brexit.
Negotiations between the UK and the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, over the dispute are continuing.
On Wednesday, French officials warned that Paris will bar UK fishing boats from designated ports and tighten customs checks on British goods entering France from November 2 unless an acceptable agreement is reached before then. France has also suggested it may restrict energy supplies to Jersey because of the disagreement.
The row worsened on Thursday when France seized one British trawler for allegedly operating in its territorial waters without a licence and fined another.
Britain’s foreign secretary has summoned France’s ambassador to London to explain Paris’s actions later on Friday.
‘It’s a fight’
Eustice said London’s focus for now was trying to resolve the dispute with the European Commission and with France’s ambassador to the UK.
He told the BBC that only a “small number of vessels” had not been given licences because they were unable to prove they had “accessed Jersey waters” prior to Brexit.
“For now, we’re not going to respond in the way that France has, we’re going to raise this with the commission and we’re going to raise it through diplomatic channels with the French ambassador but we’ll reserve our right to do more things if France continue to press ahead with these threats,” Eustice said.
He also denounced remarks made on Thursday by France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune that Paris needed to speak “the language of strength” with the UK, claiming that was all it seemed to understand. Eustice said the comments were “inflammatory … and the wrong way to go about things”.
London has repeatedly denied acting unfairly over the issuing of licences, instead claiming France’s threatened actions are incompatible with the UK-EU Brexit withdrawal agreement and wider international law.
It says it has granted 98 percent of fishing licence applications from European vessels.
French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin on Thursday dismissed that claim, saying the true figure was 90 percent.
“And all the ones without licences are French, except for one or two Belgians,” Girardin said.
“This isn’t a war, but it’s a fight. French fishermen have rights, a deal was signed and we must implement this deal,” she added.
Fishing makes a small contribution to the French and British economies but is a lifeline for some coastal communities.