Saturday, 6 November 2021

France and the U.K. are feuding over fish. What is this war of words really about?


France and the U.K. are feuding over fish.  What is this war of words really about?  The dispute centres on French fishing licences.

French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are seen during a lighthearted photo op in Cornwall, England, earlier this year. Their respective words over fishing rights, however, have been anything but collegial. It's war!

Well, it's a fish war.

And like past fish wars, the words are ferocious, the stakes are tiny, gunboats make an appearance, but the shots fired are almost always verbal.

This conflict pits France against Britain — and not for the first time. Think of the Napoleonic wars in the 1800s, the Seven Years' War in the 1700s (when Canada was a prize) and, of course, the big one: the Hundred Years' War. That was some time ago. It ended in 1453.

At stake in the current conflict are — wait for it — a couple hundred fishing licences for small French boats. These were introduced after the Brexit vote in 2016, when Britain took back control of its coastal waters. They allow the French boats, as agreed in the Brexit accord, to fish off the English coast and the coasts of the Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey — as they have for decades.

But the French say the British are deliberately refusing many licences to their boats. In retaliation, the French seized one English trawler and took it to the port of Le Havre and fined a second skipper on Oct. 27.

The rhetoric is fierce, and coming from the top. "Now we need to speak the language of force," France's Europe Minister Clément Beaune told French television. "Unfortunately, it's the only language the British government understands."

The British trawler the Cornelis-Gert Jan Dumfries is docked in the northern French port of Le Havre last month as it waited to be given permission to leave.  British Prime Minister Boris Johnson replied in kind, saying France's actions may mean it's "already in breach" of the trade agreement on Brexit. "That's a matter we have to pursue."

And this is Round 2. In April, the British dispatched two Navy gunboats off the coast of the island of Jersey to face down a French fishing boat protest. One French boat was reported to have tried to ram a Jersey fishing vessel. No shots were fired.

Jersey fisherman says regular folks are caught in the crossfire of post-Brexit fishing row Britain to send patrol boats to Jersey amid fishing-related tensions with France What is it about fish?

A Canadian lesson

In 1995, the Canadian fisheries minister, Brian Tobin, ordered the seizure of a large Spanish trawler for overfishing in waters off the Canadian coast. The Coast Guard fired across the fleeing trawler's bow. Tobin later displayed the nets on a barge in the East River, just outside the United Nations headquarters, to show that they infringed international fishing rules.

The Spanish retaliated by sending a military patrol boat to protect its vessels.

The European commissioner for fisheries, Emma Bonino, called the seizure "an act of organized piracy." Threatened European Union sanctions were vetoed by Britain, after intense lobbying by Canada's high commissioner to London, Royce Frith.

Tobin then travelled to the Cornwall fishing port of Newlyn, where he was greeted as a hero in a sea of Canadian flags by English fishers who loathed the Spanish fishing fleets in their waters as well.

"I've never had such a glorious reception in all my political life," Tobin told me at the time.

Back in the mid-'90s, Canadian fisheries minister Brian Tobin had a row with the Spanish over fishing rights off Canada's east coast. The "war" was settled quietly about six weeks later. Canada returned a $600,000 Cdn bond Spain had posted to free the seized Spanish vessel. And both countries agreed to revised international fishing rules off the coast.

The French-British conflict is nastier, wider and personal.

Fake fury?

British government sources have been whispering that the French fury is faked. President Emmanuel Macron faces a tough presidential re-election campaign in the next few months and they say some high-profile Brit-bashing could help galvanize the voters, particularly in France's increasingly restive right-wing camp.

True, but that misreads the real anger in the French government toward the Johnson government. Much of it has to do with Brexit. Macron believes that Johnson can't be trusted.

The two men met at the G7 summit in June. Macron told Johnson there needed to be a reset in British-French relations. Just so everyone understood, a presidential adviser then dictated Macron's exact words — which he had delivered in English to Johnson — to the media.

It included this key sentence: "[A reset] can happen provided he keeps his word with the Europeans."

In other words, stop lying.

Instead, in September the British signed up for something called AUKUS, an American-Australian-British alliance against China that brutally — and with no notice — jostled France out of a long-standing submarine deal with Australia in favour of the U.S.

The French were incandescent. The foreign minister called it a "stab in the back." Paris recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, but not from London.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, rudely dismissed the Johnson government as "the fifth wheel on the carriage" in this plot.

Johnson, as usual, played it for laughs. "Donnez-moi un break," he said in deliberately fractured French. The French were not amused.

'Not a big sign of your credibility' Indeed, the British, and this British government in particular, know how to infuriate their neighbours across the Channel.

"We won't let Great Britain wipe its feet on the Brexit accords." That was the French government spokesman and cabinet minister Gabriel Attal on Oct. 26.

The French government believes Britain hasn't respected its commitments on fishing or on customs checks in Northern Ireland. London has even threatened to ditch the Northern Ireland protocol.

On Oct. 28, the French prime minister, Jean Castex, sent a letter to European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling for sanctions against London. It had to be shown that Brexit costs.

"It is essential to make clear to European public opinion that … leaving the Union is more damaging than remaining in it," Castex said.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex wrote a letter to European Union Commission president Ursula von der Leyen calling for sanctions against the U.K., saying, "It is essential to make clear to European public opinion that … leaving the Union is more damaging than remaining in it." (Charles Platiau/Pool Photo via The Associated Press) France, he wrote, could start applying its own sanctions on fish catches as of Nov. 2.

The next day, British cabinet minister George Eustice said, "two can play at that game."

Macron himself drove the French message home in an interview with the Financial Times of London on Oct. 29.

"Make no mistake," he said, "when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility."

A call for calm

This really does feel like war, if only diplomatic. In economic terms, the catch is tiny. Fishing represents less than half of one per cent of gross domestic product in both countries, according to the World Bank.

The French problem is that the EU is far less bellicose toward Britain. It would like a negotiated end to the wrangling, not wet fish at 20 paces.

On Oct. 31, Macron and Johnson met again at the G20 meeting in Rome, and apparently couldn't agree to end the dispute. Instead, Macron lobbed another warning. According to the French presidential palace readout, "the French president told his counterpart about the need to respect commitments taken jointly by the U.K. and the EU in the Brexit agreement."

In return, Johnson told Macron to "withdraw his threats" over sanctions. By Monday night, Macron seemed ready to talk further, rather than block English fishing boats unloading their catches at French ports.

Meanwhile, the president of the French ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, tried to rein in his own government by injecting a note of common sense into the heated debate.

He told the BBC on Oct. 29 that if sanctions were imposed by France, "it will be terrible for both sides of the Channel — for you, for us, for the ports, for the fishermen in your country, for the fishermen in our country. And that's only for a few little boats that are not allowed to fish in your country."

But who wants to listen to common sense in a fish war?

Don Murray · CBC News · Posted: Nov 02, 2021 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: November 2