“Fish war”: Brexit will start to resuscitate old, still “pre-EU” disputes and grievances in Europe

In a series of ultimatums with which Paris and London are defending their vision of fishing in British waters after Brexit, the sides have literally stopped at the threshold of mutual sanctions

"Fish war": Brexit will start to resuscitate old, still "pre-EU" disputes and grievances in Europe
Tomorrow, European Affairs (from France) and Brexit (from the UK) ministers will try to find a way out of the protracted conflict, but it is not certain that they will succeed.

This conflict, which has been dragging on since January 2021, in fact since the economic agreement that governs London’s relationship with the EU after Brexit came into force, shows the mechanism for many future disputes. As soon as it turns out that a clause in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, adopted in haste and under threat of not being adopted at all, is insufficiently drafted or subject to different interpretations in practice, there are always those who want to take advantage of it.

“The Fish War, in which threats to cut the electric cable from France to the British islands of Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel are interspersed with flag displays by Her Majesty’s military boats, is full proof of this. The vocabulary of the Napoleonic Wars has long been in use here: French fishermen talk of “insidious Albion” threatening a “new Trafalgar”, British fishermen of “attempts to seize our seas”. Both sides are threatening to take the situation “into their own hands”, and they have such experience – in the 1990s, “fish wars” even involved boarding. It is no coincidence that British fishermen were among the staunchest supporters of an exit from the EU that forced them to “share” their waters. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under whom the country is paying for many of the costs of this withdrawal, knows very well how important their support is.

Except that they have to share even after Brexit. In a separate clause of the EU-UK Fisheries Agreement they stipulate that during a transition period (five and a half years) the quotas of the EU for catches in British waters will be gradually reduced to 75% of what they were before Brexit. It is also spelt out that EU fishermen can fish in an area between 6 and 12 miles from British shores (extending to the Crown Islands of Jersey and Guernsey) provided they can prove that they have fished there before. It turned out to be a piece of cake.

Then the local authorities took the situation into their own hands. Using the fact that the question about who and where had been fishing on vessel without special equipment is very often a question of interpretations, they slow down the issuance of licenses to foreign fishermen, and the nearest neighbour, the French, suffers most. They are offended: they say that 90% of applications from the EU are approved, while ours are only 40% approved. There is talk of “political games”. President Emmanuel Macron threatened to retaliate by blocking access to French ports for all British fish products, which would ruin the industry, because most of the processing is done on the continent. The response from London was to “stop getting hot and bothered and calm down”. And made it clear that they could impose “strict controls” on all European ships in their waters.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex asked Brussels to make it clear to London that “it costs much more to leave the EU than to stay in it”. Even a face-to-face meeting between President Macron and Prime Minister Johnson did not help to defuse the stand-off. It is against this gloomy backdrop that European Affairs Minister Clément Bon and Brexit Minister David Frost will start talks in Paris on 4 November on the “fish dossier”. It looks very much like they will at least have to work out a new version of the very same fisheries clause in the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement. And then propose it for EU approval.

But there is another important circumstance in this dispute

The contrast between the bitterness, even rage, of the confrontation on the “fish front” and the insignificance of the very subject of the dispute is striking – if you translate the interest into shalands, the count goes to dozens of vessels, even small boats. There is no doubt that the issue of licences and the processing of fish products could, in principle, be resolved at the local level, if one wanted to. But it probably does not exist.

There is, on the contrary, another desire – to show determination in the confrontation with the former EU partner in the run-up to the new “hot” post-Brexit plots. These include London’s intention to rewrite the protocol on Northern Ireland (part of the agreement with the EU), which regulates the entry of goods into that territory from the UK. And also about the problem of refugees who are rushing to the UK, but who are not allowed through the Eurotunnel by the French police, for which London no longer wants to pay. France, as is not hard to understand, does not want these refugees who have not made it to the cherished UK either. These problems are clearly more puzzling than the ‘fish disputes’, but whether ministers find a solution on them at the Paris talks will also determine how to approach the whole ‘post-Brexit issue’.

If no approach is found, there is a great risk that Brexit will rekindle old, pre-European Union disputes and grievances in Europe, on both sides of the Channel.

Elena Panina, RIA FAN

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