France has 48 hours to back down in a bitter dispute over fishing rights, or face legal action from London under the Brexit trade deal, the United Kingdom has warned.
On Monday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Paris had “behaved unfairly” and made “completely unreasonable threats”, with the two sides at loggerheads over the number of licences the UK has handed French vessels keen to fish in its territorial waters.
France has said it could impose targeted measures from Tuesday, including stopping UK boats landing in its ports and tightening customs checks on British goods entering the country, if there is no resolution to the dispute.
London says it distributes fishing licences under rules in the post-Brexit deal it signed with the European Union in December last year, but Paris claims some French vessels have been denied permits to operate in areas where they have long fished.
Truss said she would “absolutely” take legal action in the coming days if France pressed ahead with its threatened sanctions.
“This issue needs to be resolved in the next 48 hours,” she told Sky News. “They need to withdraw those threats or else we will use the mechanisms of our trade agreement with the EU to take action.”
Truss’s remarks came after France said on Sunday that it was up to the UK to resolve the dispute, which intensified last week when French authorities detained a British trawler.
The two sides painted different pictures of a meeting between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of a Group of 20 (G20) summit in Rome.
Johnson said London’s position was unchanged but added he was “puzzled” to read a letter from Paris to the EU asking “for Britain to be punished for leaving the EU”.
“I don’t believe that is compatible either with the spirit or the letter of the Withdrawal Agreement of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” he said, referring to the Brexit divorce and trade deals.
Macron, also speaking at a post-summit news conference, said he wanted an agreement.
“I don’t want escalation,” he said. “I don’t want to have to use retaliation measures, because that wouldn’t help our fishermen.”
Macron said Paris had given proposals to London and “now the ball is in Britain’s court”.
The fishing issue dogged Brexit talks for years, not because of its economic importance but rather its political significance.
Fishing makes a small contribution to the French and British economies but is a lifeline for some coastal communities.