France and the United Kingdom are fighting over the fish. What is this war of words really about?
It’s the war!
Well, it’s a war of the fish.
And like in past Fish Wars, the words are fierce, the stakes are low, gunboats appear, but the shots are almost always verbal.
This conflict pits France against Great Britain – and not for the first time. Think of the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s, the Seven Years’ War in the 1700s (when Canada was a prize) and, of course, the most important: the Hundred Years War. It was some time ago. It ended in 1453.
What is at stake in the current conflict are, wait, a few hundred fishing licenses for small French boats. These were introduced after the Brexit vote in 2016, when Britain regained control of its coastal waters. They allow French boats, as agreed in the Brexit deal, to fish off the English coasts and the Channel Islands coasts of Jersey and Guernsey – as they have done for decades.
But the French say the British are deliberately denying many licenses to their ships. In retaliation, the French seized an English trawler and took it to the port of Le Havre and fined a second captain on October 27.
The rhetoric is fierce, and comes from above. “Now we must speak the language of force,” French Minister for Europe, Clément Beaune, told French television. “Unfortunately, it is the only language the UK government understands.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded similarly, saying France’s actions could mean it is “already in violation” of the Brexit trade deal. “This is an issue that we must pursue.”
And this is the second round. In April, the British dispatched two Navy gunboats off the coast of the island of Jersey to deal with a demonstration by French fishing boats. A French boat is said to have tried to hit a Jersey fishing boat. No shots were fired.
What about the fish?
A Canadian Lesson
In 1995, Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin ordered the seizure of a large Spanish trawler for overfishing in the waters off the Canadian coast. The Coast Guard fired at the bow of the fleeing trawler. Tobin then showed the nets on a barge in the East River, just outside the United Nations headquarters, to show they were breaking international fishing rules.
The Spaniards retaliated by sending a military patrol boat to protect its ships.
EU Fisheries Commissioner Emma Bonino called the seizure “an act of organized piracy”. Britain has vetoed threatened European Union sanctions, after intense lobbying by Canada’s High Commissioner to London, Royce Frith.
Tobin then traveled to the fishing port of Newlyn in Cornwall, where he was greeted as a hero in a sea of Canadian flags by English fishermen who also hated the Spanish fishing fleets in their waters.
“I have never had such a glorious reception in my entire political life,” Tobin told me at the time.
The “war” was quietly settled about six weeks later. Canada returned a bond of C $ 600,000 that Spain had posted to release the seized Spanish vessel. And the two countries have agreed to revise international offshore fishing rules.
The Franco-British conflict is meaner, broader and more personal.
British government sources have whispered that the French fury is rigged. President Emmanuel Macron will face a tough presidential re-election campaign over the next few months and they say high-level British bashing could help galvanize voters, especially in the increasingly agitated right-wing camp of the France.
True, but it ignores the French government’s real anger towards the Johnson government. Much of this has to do with Brexit. Macron thinks Johnson cannot be trusted.
The two met at the G7 summit in June. Macron told Johnson there was a need to reset Franco-British relations. For everyone to understand, a presidential adviser then dictated Macron’s exact words – which he had spoken in English to Johnson – to the media.
It included this key phrase: “[A reset] can happen as long as he keeps his word with the Europeans. “
In other words, stop lying.
Instead, in September, the British signed something called AUKUS, a US-Australian-British alliance against China that brutally – and without warning – pushed France out of a long-standing submarine deal. date with Australia in favor of the United States.
The French were incandescent. The foreign minister called it a “stab in the back”. Paris has recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, but not from London.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, has crudely dismissed the Johnson government as “the fifth wheel of the cart” in this plot.
Johnson, as usual, played it for a laugh. “Give me a break,” he said in deliberately fractured French. The French were not amused.
“Not a great sign of your credibility”
Indeed, the British, and this British government in particular, know how to enrage their neighbors across the Channel.
“We will not let Britain wipe its feet on the Brexit deals.” He was the spokesperson for the French government and cabinet minister Gabriel Attal on October 26.
The French government considers that Great Britain has not respected its commitments in terms of fishing or customs controls in Northern Ireland. London even threatened to abandon the Northern Ireland protocol.
On October 28, French Prime Minister Jean Castex sent a letter to the President of the Commission of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, calling for sanctions against London. We had to show that Brexit costs.
“It is essential to make European public opinion understand that… leaving the Union is more damaging than staying there,” said Castex.
France, he wrote, could start enforcing its own sanctions on fish catches from November 2.
The next day, British Minister George Eustice said: “two can play this game”.
Macron himself made the French message understood in an interview with the Financial Times in London on October 29.
“Make no mistake,” he said, “when you spend years negotiating a treaty and a few months later you do the opposite of what has been decided on the aspects that suit you the least, that’s not a big sign of your credibility. “
A call for calm
It really looks like a war, if only diplomatic. In economic terms, the catch is tiny. Fishing accounts for less than half of one percent of gross domestic product in the two countries, according to the World Bank.
The French problem is that the EU is much less belligerent towards Britain. He would like a negotiated end to the quarrels, not wet fish 20 paces away.
On October 31, Macron and Johnson met again at the G20 meeting in Rome and apparently could not agree to end the dispute. Instead, Macron issued another warning. According to the reading of the French presidential palace, “the French president told his counterpart of the need to respect the commitments made jointly by the United Kingdom and the EU in the Brexit agreement”.
In return, Johnson told Macron to “withdraw his threats” regarding the sanctions. Monday night, Macron seemed ready to talk further, rather than blocking the English fishing boats which unload their catches in French ports.
Meanwhile, the president of the French ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, has tried to put the brakes on his own government by injecting a note of common sense into the heated debate.
He told the BBC on October 29 that if sanctions were imposed by France, “it will be terrible for both sides of the Channel – for you, for us, for the ports, for the fishermen in your country, for the fishermen from our country. And that’s only for a few small boats that are not allowed to fish in your country. “
But who wants to listen to common sense in a fish war?