Photo by Siegfried Modola

Fishing wars

Brexit fallout sees France going into decline, while Britain exploits its new-found freedoms

Artillery Row

Who shall have the fishy, on the little dishy, who shall have the fishy, when the boat comes in? For those of us who grew up in the 1970s that refrain heralded another episode of an interminable BBC drama series starring James Bolam.

These days the distribution of the catch looms large over high politics, as it has proved one of the trickiest issues in the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) reached between the UK and the EU late last year. While it was generally agreed that the fisheries aspects of the TCA were a big disappointment to UK trawlermen, they are proving in practice to be a source of outrage to French ones.

Between now and 2026, the share of fish caught in UK waters allocated to UK vessels will rise by about 25 per cent. Under the terms of the TCA, licences for EU vessels to fish in British waters during this period will normally be granted where the owner of the vessel can show it has fished the same waters in the past. From 2026 onwards, the UK Government will be under no obligation to allow any EU vessel to fish in UK waters but instead the sharing out of catches will be agreed by an annual negotiating process.

France remains in an extraordinary sulk

France, which remains in an extraordinary sulk about the setting up of the AUKUS defence deal behind its back in September, recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US in protest, but has chosen fish as its primary means of reprisal against the UK.

The withholding of a few dozen licences from French vessels that were unable to show they had fished the relevant waters before especially those around Jersey is exactly in line with the arrangements agreed with the EU under the TCA. But the regime of Emmanuel Macron is having none of it.

After impounding one British trawler, France issued a series of threats about further retaliation amid dark talk of implementing a go-slow at Calais, designed to cripple Britain’s European trade, and even rumours of pulling the plug on an electricity interconnector. This would have been a remarkably hostile act that could have plunged Jersey into a power crisis. French prime minister Jean Castex even wrote to the European Commission, urging that every EU member country and the entire machinery of Brussels should stand with it to show that “leaving the Union is more damaging than remaining in it”.

The BBC lapped up Macron’s claim

Naturally most British broadcast media, especially the BBC, lapped up Macron’s claim that Britain’s credibility was at stake and sought to make anti-Brexit capital about this country supposedly ending up isolated yet again.

Even those outlets that acknowledged the withholding of licences was permitted under the terms of the TCA and therefore it was France that was behaving in a renegade way sought to draw a false equivalence with Britain being prepared to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol. In fact, the power to suspend is an intrinsic and agreed part of that protocol (the infamous Article 16), which triggers if just one stipulated criterion is met, namely “if the application of this protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”. Arguably, all those things have happened. Unarguably, serious societal difficulties and diversion of trade have occurred.

Had France received the kind of assurances from the European Commission that Castex asked for, then there is little doubt it would have escalated its hostility towards the UK. Its failure to do so by its self-imposed deadline of Tuesday tells us that the powers-that-be in Brussels were not willing to enter into a pact to help the French beat up the Brits.

Legally, France does not have a leg to stand on,

Given that an independent legal process could have been invoked by the UK to rule on who was at fault in the dispute, that is entirely unsurprising. Legally, France does not have a leg to stand on, and the Commission would have caused itself another self-inflicted humiliation to follow on its extraordinary mis-steps during the row over deliveries of the Astra Zeneca coronavirus vaccine. Should France go on to unilaterally punish the UK without due cause, then the whole EU will be in clear breach of the TCA.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking, as Michel Barnier used to say. The year 2026 is already looming into view, and with it the prospect of Britain quite legally driving a much harder bargain over access to fisheries. The past few months has seen Brexit Britain get a head start on France over Covid vaccination, become an integral part of an important new defence arrangement in the Pacific that France was excluded from, and make rapid progress on bilateral trade agreements with significant economies such as Australia and India. In his recent Budget, Rishi Sunak even began experimenting with tax reform measures that would not have been possible had we remained tied to EU law.

The real story is that leaving the Union is not proving demonstrably more damaging to the UK than remaining inside it would have been. Instead, it is France that is seeing its global reach and regional clout going into decline, while Britain starts to exploit its new-found freedom of manoeuvre. Or to put it another way, our boat is coming in.

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