October 28, 2021 - 2:00pm

The great Anglo-French fish war of 2021 has begun.

Two British scallop boats were challenged by the “Gendarmerie Maritime” in the Bay of the Seine on Wednesday morning.

One had no licence for French waters and was forced into Le Havre to face charges. The other refused at first to stop and was charged with trying to evade controls (although it had otherwise done nothing wrong).

In fact, this was probably just a routine check by the French maritime authorities. It has been spun nonetheless by Paris as part of France’s escalation of a bad-tempered and seemingly trivial dispute with the UK over post-Brexit fishing licences. Just today, France’s Europe minister said that the UK only understands the “language of force”.

Now it is threatening from next Tuesday to impose pettifogging bureaucracy on trucks arriving in France from Britain — something that could gum up the Channel Tunnel and Channel ports and further disrupt Britain’s already suffering post-Brexit trade with the continent.

There is also a secondary threat by Paris to reduce or increase the bill for electricity supplies from France to Jersey and Britain — but not to cut off cross-Channel power cables as originally and foolishly threatened.

The dispute between two neighbours and allies and deeply intertwined defence partners (Brexit or no Brexit) may appear absurdly overblown. Fisheries are a tiny part of the economy in both countries: 0.06% of GDP in France; 0.1% in the UK.

The argument is about only a tiny part of these small (but romantic and politically powerful) industries. It concerns 180 missing licences for small French boats to fish between six and 12 miles of the English and Jersey coasts. Most foreign fishing vessels are allowed to fish only up to 12 miles from UK shores.

The exception was made for centuries-old French inshore catches in a wider fishing deal reached last December as part of Britain’s post-Brexit agreement with the EU. French boats would be given licences if they could show that they had fished these waters in recent years.

Ten months later, London has provided only 100 of the 175 licences requested for fishing off England. Jersey has offered only 106 of the 211 licences requested for its waters. Guernsey is being more helpful.

The British and Jersey governments say the boats’ owners have failed to produce the required proof of past fishing effort. The French say that small boats have no satellite tracking devices and have produced as much evidence as they can. Other EU countries, to France’s fury, have declined to get involved.

Doubtless there is fault on both sides but Britain’s attempts to wriggle out of the Northern Ireland part of the Brexit deal damages its case for a rigid interpretation of the fish deal with France.

The British government’s good faith was also called into question by its own statement last night on the French retaliation plans. London said that it had issued 98% of requested licences but did not make it clear that this applied to all EU fishing boats in all UK fishing waters. 

Even that figure was wrong. It is more like 90%. The missing 10% are almost all made up of the inshore licences for small French boats — of which only 53% have been accepted.

With good will on both sides the dispute could be resolved in an afternoon. Cross-Channel good will — eroded also by Britain’s part in France’s loss of a multi-billion euro submarine deal with Australia — is currently in short supply. 

Prepare for a long and foolish “war”.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.