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4th Dec 2021

France and UK issue rival ultimatums in fishing row

  • France and UK also had different figures on how many licences were issued (Photo: Ben Sutherland)
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France and the UK have issued rival ultimatums in a dispute on fishing rights as talks continue to avoid a trade war.

French president Emmanuel Macron said Monday (1 November) he would extend by 24 hours his deadline for the British to start issuing more licences for French boats.

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"Since this afternoon, discussions have resumed on the basis of a proposal I made to [UK] prime minister [Boris] Johnson. The talks need to continue," Macron told press in the margins of a United Nations climate summit in Scotland.

"My understanding is that the British were going to come back to us tomorrow with other proposals ... We'll see where we are tomorrow at the end of the day, to see if things have really changed," Macron added.

"After 10 months, when such a significant amount of licences, targeting one country [France], is missing, it's not a technical issue, it's a political choice ... a friend, ally, and responsible partner should stand by its word and comply with legal commitments," French Europe minister Clément Beaune also said.

The UK had issued fewer than 40 percent of licences requested for French boats, he noted.

"This is why France asks for action at the EU level and stands ready to implement proportionate and reversible measures," Beaune said.

But for their part, British politicians hit back with accusations and ultimatums of their own.

They said 98 percent of French fishermen's requests had been fulfilled.

Johnson also accused Macron of playing Brexit politics, by saying he was "puzzled" by a recently leaked French letter urging the European Commission to show the UK it "causes more damage to leave the EU than to stay in" by backing Paris on fish.

"I don't believe that that is compatible either with the spirit or the letter of the [Brexit] Withdrawal Agreement or the Trade and Co-operation Agreement," Johnson said.

His foreign minister, Liz Truss, accused Macron of manufacturing the crisis to score points ahead of French national elections next year.

"You might say there's a French election coming up," she told BBC Radio on Monday when asked why the dispute had arisen.

"The French have made completely unreasonable threats, including to the Channel Islands and to our fishing industry, and they need to withdraw those threats," she said.

She issued her own ultimatum, adding: "This issue needs to be resolved in the next 48 hours".

"The French have behaved unfairly. It's not within the terms of the trade deal. And if someone behaves unfairly in a trade deal you're entitled to take action against them and seek some compensatory measures and that is what we will do if the French don't back down," Truss said.

The potential French sanctions include a ban on landing British seafood in French ports - which act as a gateway to the EU market - heightened customs checks on other British imports, and even electricity cuts for British Channel Islands.

It already impounded a British fishing boat last week saying it had the wrong paperwork.

The British action would see Truss initiate proceedings in a Brexit trade-deal arbitration body, which can take several months to make up its mind.

The EU and the UK are also involved in a separate dispute on customs checks in Northern Ireland and on the role of the European Court of Justice in policing the Brexit withdrawal accord.

"I am increasingly concerned that the UK government will refuse to engage with this and embark on a path of confrontation," EU Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič said on Sunday.

The EU approach had "destroyed cross-community consent" to the Brexit deal, British Brexit negotiator Lord Frost also said in a policy paper the same day, ahead of their talks later this week.

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