After threats, France opens door to talks on fishing feud

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After threats, France opens door to talks on fishing feud
© Sameer Al-DOUMY French fishing boats protested off Jersey earlier this year

France’s prime minister said Thursday that he was ready for talks with Britain to resolve the months-long standoff over fishing access rights, while insisting that London honour its post-Brexit commitments.

“We are always open to talks, morning, noon and night,” Jean Castex said during a visit to the Atlantic coast of Brittany, not far from the contested waters.

His call came after France warned that retaliatory measures would take effect starting November 2, including time-consuming customs and sanitary checks on all products brought to France and a ban on landing seafood.

French authorities also fined two British boats fishing for scallops during checks Wednesday, with one detained at Le Havre. 

“This isn’t a war, but it’s a fight. French fishermen have rights, a deal was signed and we must implement this deal,” Maritime Minister Annick Girardin said Thursday.

At stake are the livelihoods of over 200 fishermen still awaiting licences to ply waters between six and 12 miles from British shores, in particular around the Channel island of Jersey, according to French officials.

Girardin dismissed a claim by Britain’s Environment Secretary George Eustice that 98 percent of access applications by EU vessels had been approved.

“That’s not true. Europeans have requested 2,127 licenses, the British have granted 1,913, that’s 90 percent,” she told RTL radio.

“And all the ones without licenses are French, expect for one or two Belgians,” she said.

– More retaliation? –

France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune, meanwhile, said that “now we have to speak the language of force, because I fear that unfortunately that’s the only language this British government understands.”

He said a second round of retaliation could follow if no progress is made soon.

“We can revisit a certain number of cooperation agreements, for example by increasing electricity prices” for Jersey and other Channel islands that get their power from mainland France.

Britain’s Eustice insisted that “the UK government will stand squarely behind Jersey on this matter,” while also calling for steps to “de-escalate” the deepening crisis.

London has also promised “an appropriate and calibrated response” to the French measures, since the British fishing industry depends on French ports as a gateway to Europe, its main export market.

The owner of the detained British trawler said it was fishing legally in French waters, saying the fine appeared to be “politically motivated.”

“We’ve not had this issue” previously, Andrew Brown, a director at Scotland-based Macduff Shellfish, told AFP, saying they had not yet been able to contact French authorities.

The trawler fishes for scallops that are processed in the UK and then exported to the Continent, mainly to France, Brown said.

– ‘About time’ –

Beyond the targeted French measures against the fishing sector, broader customs checks have the potential to seriously slow down trade with Britain, whose economy has been hit by supply disruptions since its exit from the EU in January.

In Brussels, an EU spokesman said it would pursue talks with the UK and France in coming days to try to resolve the dispute.

“Our Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the UK is clear: vessels who were fishing in these waters should be allowed to continue,” the spokesman said. 

French fishermen meanwhile are furious that Brexit was used as an excuse to keep many from securing licenses despite having plied British waters for years.

“It’s about time they started doing checks, but we’re wondering how the English will respond,” said Pascal Delacour, a scallops fisher based in Granville, just a few miles from Jersey.

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