LORIENT, Oct 28 — France’s prime minister said today that he was ready for talks with Britain to resolve a months-long standoff over fishing access rights, while insisting that London honour its post-Brexit commitments.
“We are always open to talks, morning, noon and night,” Jean Castex said during a visit to the Atlantic coast of Brittany, not far from the contested waters.
His call came after France warned that retaliatory measures would take effect starting November 2, including time-consuming customs and sanitary checks on all products brought to France and a ban on landing seafood.
French authorities also fined two British boats fishing for scallops during checks Wednesday, with one detained at Le Havre.
“This isn’t a war, but it’s a fight. French fishermen have rights, a deal was signed and we must implement this deal,” Maritime Minister Annick Girardin said Thursday.
At stake are the livelihoods of over 200 fishermen still awaiting licences to ply waters between six and 12 miles from British shores, in particular around the Channel island of Jersey, according to French officials.
Britain’s Environment Secretary George Eustice insisted that “the UK government will stand squarely behind Jersey on this matter,” while also calling for steps to “de-escalate” the deepening crisis.
Girardin dismissed a claim by Eustice that 98 per cent of access applications by EU vessels had been approved.
“That’s not true. Europeans have requested 2,127 licenses, the British have granted 1,913, that’s 90 per cent,” she told RTL radio.
“And all the ones without licenses are French, expect for one or two Belgians,” she said.
The Jersey government said it was “extremely disappointed” at France’s threat, saying it had made “progress” at talks Wednesday that included European Commission officials.
In a statement, the territory’s environment and external relations ministers said that from Friday, 162 French boats will be allowed to fish in its waters, of which 113 will have permanent licences and 49 temporary.
But 55 boats will be banned from October 31, the ministers said, down from the previous figure of 75.
France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune, meanwhile, said that “now we have to speak the language of force, because I fear that unfortunately that’s the only language this British government understands.”
He said a second round of retaliation could follow if no progress is made soon, potentially including electricity price hikes for Jersey and other Channel islands that get their power from mainland France.
London has promised “an appropriate and calibrated response” to the French measures, since the British fishing industry depends on French ports as a gateway to Europe, its main export market.
The owner of the detained British trawler said it was fishing legally in French waters, saying the fine appeared to be “politically motivated.”
“We’ve not had this issue” previously, Andrew Brown, a director at Scotland-based Macduff Shellfish, told AFP, saying they had not yet been able to contact French authorities.
A French prosecutor in Le Havre said the trawler’s captain could be fined up to 75,000 euros (US$87,000) for the offence, in addition to possible “administrative penalties”.
Beyond the targeted French measures against the fishing sector, broader customs checks have the potential to seriously slow down trade with Britain, whose economy has been hit by supply disruptions since its exit from the EU in January.
In Brussels, an EU spokesman said it would pursue talks with the UK and France in coming days to try to resolve the dispute.
“Our Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the UK is clear: vessels who were fishing in these waters should be allowed to continue,” the spokesman said.
French fishermen meanwhile are furious, alleging that Brexit is being used as an excuse to keep many from securing licenses for British waters they say they have plied for years.
“It’s about time they started doing checks, but we’re wondering how the English will respond,” said Pascal Delacour, a scallops fisher based in Granville, just a few miles from Jersey.
Barrie Deas, head of Britain’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, warned that French boats stood to lose the most in any “tit for tat” dispute.
“It’s a bit strange because the French fleets fish much more in UK waters than we fish in their waters,” he told the BBC’s Today programme. — AFP