France has threatened to retaliate against Britain in yet another post-Brexit dispute, this time over fishing rights in what the British call the English Channel and the French the English Channel, the narrow arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates England’s south coast from coast. northern coast of France.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Wednesday that the response could begin by the end of next week.
France is unhappy with the British government’s refusal to allow more French boats to fish in its territorial waters near the British English Channel. The UK has issued 325 fishing licenses but has turned down 125 applications from French fishermen who say they have also trawled the waters in recent years. The fishermen said they should also be granted access under the terms of a trade deal struck last year with the European Union upon leaving the bloc.
An angry French government threatened to dramatically escalate the dispute and warned it was considering cutting or cutting power supplies to the Channel Islands and the UK mainland, which receives 7% of its electricity from France.
A dispute over French trawlers sailing off the Channel Islands prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this year to send Royal Navy ships to patrol the area, to which France responded by sending patrol ships to protect French trawlers.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Tuesday that his government is ready to consider all bilateral cooperation with the UK, and French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for the EU to consider broader reprisals.
Speaking to the French National Assembly, Castex called on the EU to tighten relations with the UK and said Brussels “needs to do more.” He added: “We will refer this matter to the arbitration panel of the agreement so that the British will respect their word. [and] we will question all the conditions for a more global implementation of the agreements concluded under the auspices of the European Union, as well as, if necessary, the bilateral cooperation that we have with the United Kingdom, ”he said.
But Brussels seems reluctant to take an active part in the fisheries dispute, although it officially supports Paris and scolds the British.
France’s European Minister for Europe, Clement Bon, outlined some possible reprisals, including imposing duties on British fish exports. “The British need us to sell their products, including fishing, they need them for energy, financial services and research centers,” Bon said last week. “All this gives us pressure points. We have the means to change the degree of our cooperation to reduce it if the UK does not comply with the agreement, ”he added.
By and large, the 125 fishing license dispute may seem like a side issue that shouldn’t undermine relations between European neighbors, but the two governments have fought viciously for months, and the post-Brexit fishing clash heightens the anger. an already toxic relationship.
Diplomats on both sides describe Anglo-French relations as “terrible” and admit that they have never been so bad in their professional lives. They say that for comparison, you need to go back to the 1960s. This was when French President General Charles de Gaulle continued to slam the door in British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s attempts to enlist French support for Britain’s joining the then European Community. Macmillan was brought to tears of disappointment after one meeting with de Gaulle.
But at least two statesmen met face to face. The British say they have been trying to arrange sit-down talks between Johnson and Macron for months. Their French counterparts say they doubt the meeting between the two leaders will do anything.
Other historians cite for comparison the 1890s, when Great Britain and France were at odds in the struggle for African colonies. This competition eventually ended when they signed the 1904 Agreement of the Cordial Entente, a series of agreements that marked a significant improvement in Anglo-French relations.
But the new Entente Cordiale has few prospects. Some former British diplomats agree that there is no point in meeting Johnson-Macron in person. “Bilateral squabbles are more numerous and more public than ever since the 2003 Iraqi rift. Some level of confidence needs to be restored before the summit is worthwhile, ”tweeted Peter Rickets, a retired senior diplomat and former chairman. British Joint Intelligence Committee under Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Since the official exit from the EU more than a year ago – and during the years of vicious negotiations between Brussels and London that led to Brexit – hardly a week has passed without the British and French shelling each other, and this quarrel has intensified even more. the infamous Francophobic tabloid press; and the equally patriotic French media.
In his New Year’s address in January, Macron assured Britain that France would remain a “friend and ally” despite Brexit, but he denounced the British decision to leave the bloc as a decision born of “lies and false promises.”
This year alone, the two countries have faced cross-Channel migration, and London has accused the French authorities of not doing enough to stop migrants and asylum seekers, more than 10,000 of them crossing the Channel this year in boats. and small boats. The French accused Britain of not paying the money it promised to help the French authorities control its coastline to prevent migrants from crossing the English Channel.
Countries also clashed over supplies of the COVID vaccine produced by the UK-Sweden company AstraZeneca, and the French were unhappy with the Johnson government’s frequent willingness to compare the rate of vaccine introduction in the UK at the beginning of the year with a much slower pace. vaccination programs in France and the rest of Europe.
This week, British ministers accused France of stealing – earlier this year – five million doses of the coronavirus vaccine produced in Holland but destined for the UK. They say Macron worked with EU leaders to send a large batch of Oxford / AstraZeneca jabs to France. British government officials told the British newspaper The Sun that the leak was “outrageous” and could have cost lives if Britain had failed to obtain the Pfizer vaccines.
And the two governments fell out over Australia’s decision last month to scrap a $ 66 billion deal to buy 12 French diesel-electric submarines and instead acquire at least eight much more advanced nuclear-powered combat boats from Britain and America.
The French defense minister canceled planned talks with his British counterpart as the submarine scandal erupted amid accusations from Paris that Britain was “opportunistic” and behind the scenes. Johnson responded nonchalantly, saying in French, “I just think it’s time for some of our dearest friends in the entire world to prenez un grip.” [get a grip] about all this and donnez-moi un break [give me a break]… “
With next year’s French presidential elections approaching and growing economic pressure on the British prime minister, Macron and Johnson have domestic political reasons to prolong the duel, some political observers fear. “French President Emmanuel Macron faces a tough and unpredictable election in six months, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is looking for distractions and scapegoats as reality begins to contradict his hilarious bragging rights for a bold, triumphant, autonomous Britain over Brexit,” John Lichfield. a former foreign editor of a British independent newspaper, noted in a commentary for the news site Politico.eu.
“Both countries are obsessed with each other for different reasons and often lead to stupid results,” tweeted Jonathan Eyal, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense think tank.
Ten EU member states, including Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium, have joined the French in signing a joint statement calling on the UK to abide by the Brexit trade agreement and ensure “continuity” for the French fishing fleet. But the joint statement also calls for a negotiated settlement and avoids mention of retaliation.
Privately, EU officials say they are determined to prevent an escalation of the Anglo-French fishing dispute and downplay the likelihood that the bloc as a whole will agree to retaliatory measures. Their priority is to resolve the larger dispute between the EU and the UK over Northern Ireland.