A breakthrough in Brussels this weekend
Some wars end with a parade. Others fizzle out and no-one claims victory.
The latter appears to be the outcome of the great Anglo-French Fish War of 2021 after a limited breakthrough in talks in Brussels on Saturday.
Some French fishermen, like isolated Japanese soldiers post-1945, are saying they will fight on. They warn of blockades of the Channel Ports in the next week or so. It remains to be seen if that threat will come to anything. My guess is “not very much”.
Britain and Jersey granted an extra 23 fishing licences to French boats for inshore English and Jersey waters on Saturday. Another seven permits are expected to be approved today. This will bring concessions to the French to 80 in the last week. Only 74 out of 377 licences requested by France are still being refused. In theory, talks on those missing licences will continue.
As a result, France yesterday quietly dropped its demand for EU retaliatory trade action against Britain. The European Commission told Paris, in effect: “Soyez sérieux” (Get serious). Obviously, the bloc sees no need to involved itself in a trade war over 74 licences for which there has been marked progress.
So who won and who lost?
On the whole the French have won if you compare the final figures (74 missing licences) to those in May when hostilities began (more than 200 missing licenses). But not all French fishermen — especially those in northern France — see it that way.
They say that they will organise in the next few days blockades of Channel ports and the Channel Tunnel, which briefly disrupted UK-EU truck traffic last month.
The dispute concerned a tiny part of a small industry — the rights of Norman and Breton boats to fish between six and 12 miles of the Channel Islands and the rights of boats from the Pas de Calais to fish a similar distance from the English coast
There was always something absurd about such a small issue causing such a large row between two big, neighbouring allies — even allies as quarrelsome as France and Britain. But fish politics are bigger than fish economics in both countries.
For a handful of French fishermen, inshore access rights are a matter of economic life and death.
For the British and Jersey governments, the dispute was, depending on who you listened to: a) a matter of principle to protect fragile fish stocks or b) a chance to stick it to the French post-Brexit.
Throughout this saga, the other Channel Islands government, Guernsey, has been much more pragmatic. It issued temporary licences, most of which it replaced with permanent ones a few days ago.
The post-Brexit treaty failed to say what proofs of past access were needed. Britain and Jersey devised their own, which the French insisted were unfair.
The weekend breakthrough came after the UK and Jersey agreed to take a more flexible approach to the rights of “replacement boats”. London had protested that they were often bigger and more powerful than the old ones.
The UK government has now accepted that some were bigger because they had more modern facilities — like toilets and bathrooms. So it all turned on water and “loos” — this time in France’s favour.
There will be no victory parades. Negotiations will drag on below the radar for weeks. Of the many Franco-British quarrels of 2021, the fish war is the one least likely to re-surface in 2022. But a quarrel which could have been solved months ago has unnecessarily deepened the distrust between the present French and British governments.