Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
Lord Frost is in Paris today for talks with Clément Beaune, the French Europe Minister. On the agenda is the fierce row about fishing that erupted last week. It is the latest in a string of Anglo-French disputes to boil over into political acrimony.
The dispute came to the fore when Emmanuel Macron threatened to block UK fishing boats from landing their catches at French ports and to increase checks on UK imports if the Government did not grant French fishermen more licences to fish in UK waters. A British trawler, Cornelis Gert Jan, was impounded at the port of Le Havre.
Meanwhile, Liz Truss said that if France carried out its threats, the Government would take legal action against the EU, accusing it of breaking the terms of the UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) agreed late last year.
Macron appeared to back away from escalating the dispute at the COP26 climate summit earlier this week. He did not follow through with the threatened action, saying that negotiations on the issue should continue instead.
At the heart of this deeply political dispute is a technocratic issue of licencing. Under the terms of the TCA, the UK and the EU agreed that boats which had traditionally fished between six and twelve miles off each other’s coast, and in the waters off the Channel Islands, would be allowed to continue to do so as long as they could prove that they had done so in the period between 2012 and 2016. However, the treaty did not stipulate exact criteria for assessing this historical activity.
The UK has been asking vessels to provide data to prove that they were fishing in those waters over the relevant period. However, the French say that the smaller boats that tend to fish in these waters cannot provide the sort of data the UK is asking for.
The view of the UK side is that it is complying with its obligations and has only refused to grant licences to the boats that have failed to demonstrate they had fished in UK waters before Brexit. The latest media reports suggested that boat-by-boat investigations by UK, French and EU officials were continuing yesterday. “The spirit is a constructive one on this topic,” Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, France’s Transport Minister, said. We will have to see if the dispute blows over after today’s meeting or not.
Ultimately, the fishing row is emblematic of a deeper souring of the UK-French relationship following the Brexit vote. History and geography are no doubt important factors, but there is also a sense that Brexit is an existential issue for the French establishment and the current government – more so than for Germany, for example.
After all, France has its own long and deep history of euroscepticism. This was expressed by a very narrow referendum majority for the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 (of just 51 per cent to 49 per cent), the 2005 referendum result to reject the European Constitution, and the rhetoric of recent presidential candidates, such as Marine Le Pen and potential newcomer Éric Zemmour, who has yet to declare if he is standing.
Meanwhile, the AUKUS security and technology deal between Australia, the UK, and the United States, has underlined that the UK has not lost its lustre in global affairs, which some had predicted. The loss of a lucrative submarine contract was compounded by the fact that AUKUS illustrated that Brexit has not resulted in a new geopolitical leadership role for France, which Paris might have hoped for.
Last week’s letter from Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, to Ursula von der Leyen, which stated that “we must show clearly that respecting prior agreements is not negotiable and that leaving the EU causes more damage than staying in”, will have only further confirmed the view for many on the UK side that France is not exactly willing post-Brexit Britain to succeed.
UK figures would argue that this mentality has contributed to the continuing stalemate over the Northern Ireland Protocol. As Lord Frost set out on this site earlier this week, Policy Exchange’s “meticulous analysis” outlined how the Joint Report of 2017 set the parameters for a Protocol that has upset the balance between the three strands of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
The UK is keen to use today’s discussions to soften Paris’ stance, which has been pushing for a tough line from Brussels. UK-EU negotiations on the Protocol are ongoing but both sides remain far apart on potential solutions, despite the EU finally acknowledging that there are problems to address. Without significant progress in the coming weeks, the Government has said it is prepared to trigger Article 16.
More broadly, the question is whether and how the new UK-EU relationship might become more positive in the future. France is clearly an extremely important component of the wider EU relationship. It is noteworthy that, at the height of the fishing row earlier this week, the Royal Navy was conducting joint exercises with the French navy off the coast of Brittany.
As Lord Frost said in a speech in Lisbon last month: “despite the very visible current difficulties, we will always look to have a constructive and productive relationship with France – Indeed, one of the reasons why we have such strong military ties with France is, I think in part, that we both hold a view that the defence of Europe also depends on our willingness to act beyond the Continent of Europe itself.”
With the French Presidential election approaching next spring, the political temperature may remain rather hot over the next six months. Perhaps, if Macron is re-elected, he may be in more of a mood to reset the UK relationship. Only time will tell.