The dispute between Britain and France over the fishing sector has escalated rapidly. French authorities detained a British trawler on Thursday 28 October and Britain immediately called on the French ambassador for talks.
The broader issue here is the license now required under the new Brexit regime. French fishermen complain that many of their applications for these licenses have been rejected, especially by the Jersey authorities. The French government has threatened British fishing companies to disrupt the bureaucracy, perhaps banning British fishing vessels from French ports, and even cutting off power supplies to the Channel Islands. Meanwhile, the British government has threatened retaliation. It has put Royal Navy ships on standby in case French fishermen attempt to intercept those islands. There has been no discussion to solve the problem.
These events follow earlier protests and standoffs during Brexit talks – but they also have a longer history. The most obvious comparison may be to the “Cod Wars” of the 1950s and 1970s, when Britain’s role was reversed. Subsequently, Iceland terminated the previous agreement with Britain and forced British fishermen out of Icelandic territorial waters.
Yet the conflict over the date of the fishing goes even further than that. The history of these arguments over access to territorial waters and marine resources can help us understand why these issues are iconic to modern national identity – and why both governments have responded in such a dramatic way.
For example, in the early 1600s, the Dutch Republic had the largest fishing fleet in Europe. A Scottish lawyer, William Velvod, wrote that their excessive fishing in the North Sea threatened the region’s marine stocks. But the interests of the rulers of Britain were more economic than ecological. They wanted a piece of the action and wanted to challenge Dutch dominance. Both James VI and his son Charles I tried to impose new licenses and taxes on Dutch fishing vessels, but the Royal Navy’s efforts – at the time under-funded, poorly-equipped and inefficient – to enforce this policy at the far end. Nippier Dutch ships literally circled around their British pursuers.
Later that century the British and the Dutch fought three wars for commercial and maritime supremacy. These policies on fishing were thus part of a wider argument that raged about maritime sovereignty. It was a debate that became the foundation of modern international law.
The controversy began with the Dutch lawyer and diplomat Hugo Grotius, who wrote that no one could control the sea or prevent others from fishing and trading. Grotius’ book, Mare Liberum (Free Seas), was aimed at the Portuguese Empire, which was trying to prevent the Dutch from trading in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, his ideas fell miserably in Britain as well.
Encouraged by the Stuart monarchs, Velvod and other writers, the most famous lawyer and parliamentarian John Seldon responded to the Grotius in defense of Britain’s territorial waters. Seldon’s influential mare Clausum (closed sea) challenged Grotius and drew on historical examples to show why states had the right to claim parts of the sea. Seldon goes back to the Romans and Greeks, mentions contemporary kingdoms such as Venice, and framed medieval English history for suitable, but often questionable, examples, including the Saxon king Alfred. Seldon undertook much of Alfred’s shipbuilding program, which was recorded in various Saxon chronicles, but these accounts were the most likely. Alfred’s naval activities were far less successful than those of his sympathetic historians.
Still, even popular culture involves rewriting history to justify British claims on the sea. The famous song “Rule, Britannia!”, which is now repeated every year on the last night of proms, was written in the 18th century as part of a court mask, in which Alfred (again, rather suspiciously) was called Depicted as a naval hero, the setting is believed to be Britain on its way to maritime destiny.
These ideas were easily manipulated for real politics. When the Dutch in their turn tried to prevent the British from trading in the Indian Ocean, British negotiators cited the writings of Grotius among their Dutch counterparts (one of whom, ironically, was Grotius himself). Grotius changed his view of openness to a degree when exile from the Netherlands prompted him to serve the King of Sweden, another monarch with strong views on maritime sovereignty.
By the 18th century, these disputes had resulted in a broad agreement in Europe regarding territorial waters (“the range of three miles”, based on the range of a cannon shot), along with a general acceptance that the sea should be otherwise open. Should be.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, with the British Empire expanding and aggressively seeking new markets, the British government adopted the idea of the free sea. While Britain’s rulers did not abandon the idea of territorial waters, who often impeded British trade through their claims of maritime sovereignty, they were branded as “pirates”, and were often destroyed.
These concerns arose again during the 20th century, both through the development of weapons with a range of more than three miles, and with the increasing importance of access to underwater oil and other natural resources. Some countries claim territorial waters that extend up to 200 miles from the sea, and while the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was intended to address some of these issues (and to a lesser extent, the Cod Wars). Many nations, including the United States, have never formally ratified it.
If the current controversy about fishing revisits these earlier arguments in some ways, there is also an important distinction. In the 17th and 18th centuries, fishing was economically important to Britain. By 2019 the sector had fallen to only 0.02% of the national economy. It is also dependent on cooperation with the European Union, with around half of Britain’s annual catch being exported there.
Therefore, the steadfast position of both the British and French governments in this dispute may seem excessive. However, it reflects the continuing symbolic status of both fishing and maritime sovereignty – a position that has been repeatedly debated since at least the 17th century.