Sea Bass and Salmon, or the pro-EU/Euro-skeptic divide
For centuries, England – and later the United Kingdom as a whole – and France have waged war with each other, both in Europe and overseas, competing for global hegemony. Today, a fishing dispute seems on the verge of escalating into a full-blown diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Neither Napoleon nor Admiral Nelson could have imagined their nations fighting over fish... putting satire aside, the current Franco-British dispute tells a lot about EU-UK relations in a post-Brexit setting.
The nature of the dispute
The crux of the issue is a section of the Brexit deal – which came into effect in 2021 – relating to fishing rights in British waters for EU boats. The said section stipulates that EU boats that can provide proof that they were already fishing in British waters prior to the UK’s official exit from the EU will be allowed to continue fishing there. In theory, therefore, British authorities first need to review boats’ evidence of past fishing activities, after which applicants who meet all legal conditions are delivered a fishing license.
The cause of the tension between France and the UK, however, lies in the application of the law. Paris accuses London of purposefully not delivering enough licenses to French fishermen, which constitutes a breach of the Brexit deal. According to the French Ministry of the Sea, on the 29th of September, the number of licenses supplied was short by 10% of what the French fishing sector is entitled to – so, by an order of magnitude of a few dozen licenses.
That being said, what at first appears to be a small-scale and unimportant legal dispute has nevertheless taken unexpected proportions. Back in May 2021, several French fishing boats had penetrated British waters off the Anglo-Normand Island of Jersey, only 22 kilometres from the nearest French port, to protest the UK’s unwillingness to grant them licenses. In addition, French Minister of the Sea Annick Girardin threatened the UK of cutting Jersey’s electricity supply. In response to that, London deployed two Royal Navy battleships to “monitor the situation”, the British Ministry of Defence had said.
Since then, the situation has not improved. The French still expect more licenses, while the British are still unwilling to supply them. French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a private meeting to discuss the issue last week during the G20 summit in Rome, and while (strangely) neither the Elysée Palace nor 10 Downing Street was keen to provide more information about the content of the discussion, it appears clear that no solution has been found. The French even waved the possibility of forbidding British cargo ships from unloading their tonnage in French ports, and of tightening customs controls if the British do not comply with the rules. Talks between French and British authorities are still ongoing, but as of yet, it remains uncertain what their outcome will be.
A political rather than a legal-economic issue
The level of escalation on both sides certainly seems absurdly disproportionate to the issue. True, some French fishermen’s livelihoods directly depend on their authorisation to fish in British waters, and so do that of businesses involved in the sales and transportation of seafood. Nevertheless, the fishing sector barely accounts for 0.1% of France’s GDP. The figure is similar for the UK’s fishing sector. France’s seemingly unwavering commitment to forcing the UK to comply with the terms of the agreement, and the UK’s stubborn refusal to do so – after all, several dozen licenses will hardly induce a customs-union-like competition – therefore do not make sense from a strictly economic point of view.
Which begs the question: What does really drive this dispute?
Most of it boils down to the pro-European-anti-European line of division. When he rose to power in 2017, Macron had already made it clear that the EU should make no concessions to the United Kingdom in the Brexit negotiation process. For he who dreams of an increased EU strategic convergence which is already terribly difficult
to orchestrate as it is, Brexit has come to serve as a boogeyman for other potential “exiters”: “Beware, Euroskeptic EU leaders, of the fate that awaits you should you decide to leave the Union!” This intransigent stance was made even clearer on September 6th when French Prime Minister Jean Castex sent a letter to EU Commission President Ursula Von de Leyen calling for the application of federal-level sanctions to resolve the fishing dispute. In short, for the French, the ongoing dispute is a test for the EU’s credibility as a unified block. Letting the British have their way is therefore to some extent equated with yielding to intra-EU centrifugal forces. One might also add to that Macron’s eagerness to assert his image as a strong leader before the beginning of France’s presidency of the EU in January 2022, and before the upcoming French presidential elections in April 2022 (especially after his image was eroded by the somewhat treacherously stricken AUKUS deal between the US, Australia, and the UK).
On the other side of the Channel, the fishing dispute’s intensification comes amidst an unpleasant-for-the-executive situation of supply shortages in several sectors, which are mainly due to the shortage of lorry drivers, which itself is one of many consequences of Brexit. Before the Brexit deal came into effect, many lorry drivers working in the UK came from the EU. Now, however, they face
virtually unsurmountable administrative barriers to continuing working there. Therefore, for Boris Johnson’s government yielding to France’s demands concerning fishing licenses, however small, feels like yet another Brexit-related failure, and is hence not affordable. Furthermore, France’s determination to turn the UK into a demonstrative example of EU-exit failure is viewed by the British public as vindictive, and as a blatant disregard of the British people’s sovereign will. However unpleasant it may be to third parties, a democratically reached outcome does not warrant punishment, a large portion of Johnson’s electorate believes. For Johnson too, therefore, the fishing dispute constitutes a condensation of a wider set of issues, and it simply is not in his immediate interest to strictly comply with the terms of the Brexit agreement, in particular given the British government wishes to re-negotiate some of its sections (namely those relating to Northern Ireland).
Rest in peace, Napoleon and Nelson, neither France nor the UK have subsided so low as to simply compete over fish supplies. Rather, it appears like salmon and sea bass were unexpectedly endowed with international importance.