November 9, 2021 - 3:57pm

Whatever happened to the Franco-British fish war? 

Talks in Paris last week between Lord Frost, the British minister for Brexit, and Clément Beaune, the French minister for Europe ended, according to different sources, with: a) progress b) no progress at all.

The talks are continuing at a lower level this week. As things stand, the French government has suspended its threat to gum up cross-Channel trade.  

Britain and Jersey are still refusing to hand over something like 180 post-Brexit licences to small French boats to fish in inshore waters — about 50% of the licences France says it is entitled to, not 2% as the UK government likes misleadingly to imply.

Is the war over? The Daily Mail thinks so. In an interesting dispatch from Brussels today, the Mail quotes French sources saying that President Emmanuel Macron has backed down. He has decided that continuing, or improved, defence cooperation with Britain is more important than a few licences for tiny boats to fish between 6 and 12 miles of the shores of England and the Channel Islands.

I doubt that. Macron is keen on defence cooperation between France and the UK, the only significant military powers in democratic Europe. But he is also angry about the missing licences.

Another, well-informed account, says that, au contraire, the fish war is about to open an explosive new front by merging with the far more serious EU-UK dispute over the Northern Ireland sea border.

A Twitter thread by Mujtaba Rahman (@Mij_Europe) of Eurasia Group today suggests that the EU — somewhat detached on the licence row until now — may be about to join the fisheries war. Arcane articles of the Brexit treaty allow Brussels to use fish to  threaten immediate trade sanctions against Britain if Boris Johnson’s government goes ahead (as widely expected) and suspends some aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Under the terms of the protocol, any direct retaliation by the EU against the UK on Northern Ireland would take a year to come into effect. Action on fish (implicitly linked to the Northern Ireland protocol) could be immediate.

Rahman tweeted: “…the  EU’s strategy has clearly now shifted — from trying to make progress in negotiations to attempting to dissuade (Boris Johnson and David Frost) […] There will be lots of howls from UKG Brexity types that Fr/EU are linking fish to peace/stability in NI etc. But Govt has itself also attempted to link a deal over fish with EU flexibility over (the role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland.”

What does that mean? It means that France’s unilateral threat to impose finicky checks on all trucks crossing the Channel — now suspended — could be taken over as a threatened EU retaliation. The issue would nominally remain fish. The actual issue would be Northern Ireland. 

That would be a huge escalation of both disputes — in an attempt to force Britain to back down on both. The “fish war” is not over yet.

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.