France pulls back in Brexit fish row, gives talks more time
French President Emmanuel Macron backed away from his imminent threat to punish the UK for restricting the access of French fishing boats to British waters, saying he would give negotiations more time.
“The British are going to come back to us tomorrow with further proposals. We’ll see where we are at the end of the day,” Macron told reporters in Glasgow on Monday, as a French deadline for retaliatory action approached. “We won’t be bringing in sanctions while we’re negotiating.”
Macron’s decision followed a day of tense negotiations, with the UK-France fishing spat at risk of overshadowing the COP26 climate talks. France had threatened to introduce additional customs controls on goods entering from Britain and block its fishing boats from landing their catches in France, if progress wasn’t made on issuing extra licenses by midnight on Monday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office welcomed the move in a statement and said “we are ready to continue intensive discussions on fisheries.”
Downing Street said Brexit Minister David Frost will travel to Paris on Thursday to hold in-depth discussions with France’s junior minister for European affairs, Clement Beaune.
“We’ve always said we want to de-escalate this,” UK Environment Minister George Eustice said on Sky News on Tuesday. “We welcome the fact France has stepped back from the threats it was making.”
The fishing rights at stake represent only a tiny fraction of each countries’ economy. But they have become a major flash point in the UK-France relationship following Britain’s departure from the European Union and were one of the biggest issues hanging over the Group of 20 summit in Rome over the weekend.
France accuses the UK of wrongly denying French trawlers’ access to British waters, and Macron said the ongoing talks will focus on how the issue might be resolved.
The UK has said it would take legal action if France follows through with its threats, without giving details. The French government has also warned it would raise energy costs for the British Channel Islands, which are heavily reliant on electricity from France via an undersea cable.
It’s not only the UK’s relationship with France that’s being severely tested by Brexit. Johnson’s government is embroiled in a spat with the EU over Northern Ireland and the disruption in the region following the divorce.
Frost issued a scathing attack on the bloc on Monday over its handling of the issue, saying it had behaved “without regard to the huge political, economic, and identity sensitivities involved” in the region.
European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, who is negotiating with Frost over changes to the Brexit deal concerning Northern Ireland, wrote in a newspaper column that he is concerned the UK is seeking confrontation.
In a timely reminder of what’s at stake, masked men hijacked a bus in Northern Ireland at gunpoint before setting it on fire on Monday, an attack likely linked to the ongoing Brexit disruption.
The timing of the fishing dispute has been far from ideal for Johnson as he seeks to cajole global leaders into a climate agreement on which he’s staked considerable political capital. The French trade sanctions on the UK over fishing would have coincided with the leaders’ final day in Glasgow.
Macron’s government says that 40% of the detailed French requests for licenses to fish in UK waters are still pending 10 months after the trade agreement was signed - and that requests from other EU members have all been processed. The UK counters that it has granted 98% of licence applications from EU vessels since Brexit.
Much now depends on Jersey, which has rejected 55 applications from French trawlers on the basis they didn’t have enough evidence to prove that they fished in Jersey’s waters historically.
Officials from Jersey, the UK, France and the European Commission held a lengthy meeting late into the evening on Monday. In the statement, Downing Street said continued discussions will include considering any new evidence to support the remaining license applications.
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