France’s decision to seize a British trawler vessel is just the latest escalation in a row which has been playing out, at this point, for almost a year, if not more.
The Government is adopting a tough posture, and rightly so. I wrote last December about how absurd it is for people to attack the UK’s decision to deploy gunboats but not France’s decision to threaten blockades and other measures to get what it wants.
Ministers have an obvious political incentive to stand firm, too. So it’s no surprise that the ambitious Liz Truss has taken the step of ‘hauling in’ the French ambassador. Boris Johnson has promised “an appropriate and calibrated response” if Paris doesn’t adopt a more reasonable line.
Unfortunately, Emmanuel Macron has even less reason to show weakness. He will soon face re-election in a nation with regularly puts the far right into the presidential run-off, and who’s political climate is such that Michel Barnier, that doughty champion of EU values, is talking like a Brexiteer as he angles for the conservative nomination.
(Indeed, Macron apparently didn’t run his actions past Brussels and they are now checking whether they actually comply with Union law!)
To some, this ugly stand-off will vindicate their belief that Brexit was folly. To others, it is yet more evidence that Brussels merely obfuscated and prettified a system that favoured the interests of its most powerful core members.
From a practical point of view, however, that dispute matters much less than the question of whether or not the UK can actually back up the Government’s tough line.
On the narrow question of fishing, there is the awkward fact that our fisheries protection fleet stands much reduced (hence the need to call in the Navy in the first place). France can also threaten to ‘go slow’ on customs checks and put even less effort into attempts to intercept people smugglers before they put people on boats across the Channel.
Macron also still wields the threat of cutting off Jersey – and presumably any other of the Channel Islands which dares to defy the will of the Élysée – from its French-generated electricity supplies.
Some of these issues, such as power and fisheries protection, can be fixed in time as Britain rebuilds the proper capacities of an independent state (and if it takes a serious approach to infrastructure development). The others will be harder to solve.
But solved they must be. Capitulation to French bullying would be a poor baptism for ‘global Britain’.