Britain, France fail to resolve fish row, agree more talks
Britain and France on Nov. 4 failed to resolve a row on fishing rights that has threatened to turn into a post-Brexit trade war but vowed to press on with efforts to find a solution through dialogue.
Brexit Minister David Frost met French Europe Minister Clement Beaune in Paris and both sides emphasized the two would speak again early next week.
The fishing dispute has added to a litany of bilateral problems between the Channel neighbors in the wake of Brexit that has plunged relations to a level of rancour rarely seen in recent years.
"They discussed the range of difficulties arising from the application of the agreements between the U.K. and the EU. Both sides set out their positions and concerns," a U.K. government spokesperson said.
Beaune, a close ally of President Emmanuel Macron, said after the talks there were still "significant differences" between the two sides and still did not rule out the threat of trade sanction wielded by France last week.
"Today we did not resolve the question of fishing licenses," he said, adding that Paris still wanted to "give a chance" to dialogue even if "all the options are open and all the options are possible".
Frost will now travel on to Brussels for talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic on Friday, the U.K. spokesperson added.
While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday made it clear that London’s position had not changed there are signs both sides favor diplomacy to avoid the situation worsening.
France has threatened to ban British boats from unloading their catches at French ports and to subject all British imports to inspections.
Officials have also raised the prospect of decreasing power supplies to the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, crown dependencies which are not part of the U.K. but which depend on London for their security.
"We are happy the French government withdrew its threats on Monday, that has created space for these discussions," said Frost ahead of the talks.
Under a deal agreed by Britain and the EU late last year, European fishing vessels can continue to ply U.K. waters if they can prove they operated there in the past.
But Paris says dozens of French boats have had their applications to fish the U.K.’s rich waters rejected.
Johnson’s spokesman told reporters in London that he did not "believe that the French are planning to move forward with the previous threats they’ve made, currently."
The total volumes affected are tiny in terms of overall France-U.K. bilateral trade.
But analysts say Macron is keen to take a hard line against Johnson as he eyes re-election in a 2022 poll while the British premier is also keen to talk tough in the wake of Brexit.
In the run-up to the talks, Frost tweeted official U.K. figures which London maintains show almost all licenses requested by French fishing vessels have been issued, contrary to statements by French officials.
But Beaune said that France contested the "methodology" used by the U.K. to hand out the licenses and technical discussions would now take place to iron out this part of the dispute.
In a sign of easing tensions on Wednesday evening, British trawler the Cornelis Gert Jan, impounded by France for over a week in the dispute, left the French northern port of Le Havre after receiving permission to leave, an AFP correspondent said.
Its captain, Jondy Ward, still faces charges of gathering two tons of scallops in French waters without a proper license.
But the lawyer for the ship’s captain, Mathieu Croix, told AFP a court in the nearby city of Rouen had allowed it to leave without posting any financial guarantee.
The court rejected the state’s demand that the trawler remain impounded until a 150,000-euro ($175,000) bond had been deposited, he said.
"It is a good decision, of a kind that will allow the tensions to drop," said the lawyer. "French justice is independent from political pressure," he added.