New fishing dispute: all over again

14 November 2021, 13:49

With relations at the worst they have been for two generations, Britain and France are locked in battle over an issue that is of tiny economic importance but huge political significance: fish. A local dispute between Britain and French fishermen demanding the right to fish in waters around the British-owned island of Jersey in the Channel islands has escalated into a full-blown row between two key members of Nato. France has threatened to block British ships from its ports, cut off electricity supplies, report Britain to the European Court of Justice and mobilise its EU partners to upset all Britain’s post-Brexit relations with its European neighbours.

   Britain, in return, has threatened retaliation against France and has said it will not be blackmailed by threats from President Macron. Tensions were calmed a little when Macron met Johnson at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow and both sides have now resumed negotiations to solve the fishing dispute. But the overall atmosphere remains tense and bitter. France is also still seething with anger over the behaviour of Britain, America and Australia in setting up a defence pact that scrapped a French deal to sell Australia diesel submarines and to supply Australia instead with American nuclear submarines.

  The fishing dispute is of laughable dimensions. It began because local fishermen in Normandy demanded that after the Brexit deal they should still be allowed to fish in the waters close to the island of Jersey. The island, which has its own government and parliament, said it would give licences only to French boats that could prove they had fished in inland Jersey waters for four years before Brexit. The French demanded 454 licences; the Jersey government gave out only 210. 

  France then threatened to stop British boats unloading at some French ports, said it would carry out extra licence checks, tighten controls of trucks and reinforce tighter hygiene controls. All this would seriously hurt Britain’s trade with France, not only in fish but in other goods also. Britain refused to back down and Macron then took the dispute further, calling on other EU nations to declare that Britain had broken the Brexit agreements. France wanted the EU to begin a full-scale trade war against Britain.

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  Why does such a tiny trade in fish matter? It comes at a time when Macron is seeking re-election, and French fishermen are influential in public opinion. One of their champions is a key conservative rival to Macron. So the French president wants to show that he is being tough and standing up for French honour and interests. On Britain’s side, Boris Johnson wants to show that Brexit is a success, although so far it has caused huge trade problems, has held up exports to Europe, has led to shortages of truck drivers and key workers in restaurants and the health service and has brought few benefits. Johnson wants to show that he will not be bullied by France or Europe and that Britain will take its own decisions without any input from Brussels.

  Beyond this, however, French relations with Britain are in a poor state for several reasons. The main one is French fury over the Australian submarine deal with Britain and America. It came as a complete surprise when the Australian prime minister announced that Australia would not go ahead with a trade deal worth $90 billion – a huge sum – with France. Instead, he said, Australia would buy nuclear submarines from Britain and America and would form a new security alliance called Aukus (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) for security in the south Pacific and as a clear warning to China. France will be left out, although it has former colonies and big interests in the region.

  Macron was so angry that he took the unprecedented step of withdrawing French ambassadors from America and Australia. And he dismissed Britain as just a powerless “vassal” of America, with no independent foreign policy. Such a rift has never happened between Nato allies before. The quarrel was patched up after a week or two, and the ambassadors returned to Washington and Canberra. President Biden apologised and said the affair was handled “clumsily”. But the row flared up again a few days later when Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, said Macron had been told the deal was cancelled, and he leaked a diplomatic message from Macron to Morrison suggesting France knew the deal would be cancelled. Macron was furious at the publication of a private message and called Morrison a liar. The two countries are barely on speaking terms now.

  All this was happening at the start of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Macron was there and was forced to chat to Boris Johnson, the host, and show a friendly face. The French had already impounded a British fishing boat, but as a gesture of goodwill Macron said they would release it and would not go ahead with all the threats against Britain if talks on fishing restarted. Both sides are now negotiating over the licences again. Diplomats in both Britain and France are amazed that the row over something very small has escalated into a major diplomatic incident.

  The breakdown in relations also comes when Boris Johnson’s government is under pressure at home, because of an angry row when a conservative member of parliament, a former cabinet minister, was found to have abused his position by taking a large sum of money to lobby for two private companies. This is strictly forbidden by parliamentary rules, and the MP was suspended from Parliament for 30 days. He appealed to Johnson, who said they would change the rules and he ordered his Conservative MPs to support the change. But this caused a massive outcry from the Labour Opposition and from public opinion and so Johnson abandoned the proposed change. The MP resigned in fury. 

  The result is that Johnson is now accused of sleaze and corruption and support for him has dropped sharply in his own party and also in the country. He therefore needs to show that he is being tough, and a quarrel with France is a good way to deflect attention from his own domestic troubles. 

   The irony is that Britain and France are two key military allies in Nato and need to cooperate closely together on security issues. In the past 30 years their forces have worked together around the world – in Bosnia and also in Mali, where they are both fighting Islamist extremists. They are also both members of the Security Council, and so need to coordinate policies on global issues. But it is clear that Macron now doesn’t trust Johnson, and he in turn thinks France is behaving arrogantly. 

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  Over the past year other issues have also soured London-Paris relations, especially when Britain got a lead in covid vaccinations, and France was far behind. Macron said the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, developed in Britain, was not reliable, to the fury of the British government, which said the French were simply jealous as no French company has developed an effective vaccine despite French hopes. 

  These spats have contributed to an atmosphere of distrust. They also have whipped up public opinion in each country. For centuries France and Britain regularly went to war with each other, until in 1904 they signed an “entente cordiale” which made them key military and political allies, and they fought together in two world wars. That “entente” looks very strained now, and public opinion in each country is reviving old insults and stereotypes. A way may be found to solve the fishing dispute. But Anglo-French relations are set for a lot of turbulence in the coming years. 


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