by John Lichfield
Monday, 13
December 2021
Explainer
16:41

The Anglo-French fish war ends without victory

A breakthrough in Brussels this weekend
by John Lichfield
Credit: Getty

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.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
9 months ago

I have done a fair bit of commercial fishing and the people in the trade are a combination of fierce, hardheaded, and do not tolerate being told what they can and cannot do unless it is clear all suffer the exact same rules, and that they are necessary for the fish stocks. There are few people in the modern world as much a throwback to the old toughness and independent ways as commercial fishermen.

This small boat fishing is very Hard work indeed, dangerous, and physically harsh, in all weather, wet and cold, – it is not if, but when, you will get hurt. Fishing means you have to get out there and find the fish by your own skill and drive, maintain a boat and business – it is not like going to work for someone who has everything set up, you have to get out in the wild nature and wrestle your living from it…

I work in construction and like that the men doing it are still hard, independent, tough. I see the mainstream people, how soft and sheeplike they have become, and am glad there are still people of the old school out there, that the internet and office have hot made Pu**ies of us all yet.

There are very few cases where I would support one nations fishermen being let into another nation’s fish stocks – like with corporate boats especially, but given the history I have to say I think the Frog Fishermen handled it very well – hard people doing hard work at their traditional place…..

Matt M
Matt M
9 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I always enjoy your take on things Galeti. Keep it up!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
9 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You don’t seem to be aware of the sheer militancy of the French fishermen in particular. There were no complaints from fishermen of any other EU countries that were granted licenses. It’s well known in the industry that their failure to be able to document their historic fishing in the area was a scam.
I look forward to when they all lose their licenses in 10 years or so, or we get much more in return.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
9 months 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”.
Then you need to ask Barnier about that, because that is a failure in the negotiation which he was in charge of. I understand why the French fishermen might feel wrong-footed by the British/Jersey rules – but if this was a loophole in the treaty, then shouting about how Britain was “violating the treaty” was also inaccurate, unfair and unnecessarily damaging. Expecting that kind of balanced argument from Lichfield is like expecting blood to start seeping from a stone.
Glad that the Commission finally told the French to “prenez un grip”…I think they’re pushing it in several areas (incl. trade agreements where they are blocking things right left and centre – probably because of the election) and patience in other member states is running thin.
I’d also like to add my observation that, in the last week or so, French rhetoric on Channel migrants seems to have magically shifted away from blaming the British for everything towards the effective protection of the EU’s outer borders and stopping migrants from traversing the EU. So, basically, towards common sense. Perhaps there also, there has been some kind of behind-the-scenes “get serious” conversations…?

Last edited 9 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
9 months ago

.. it all turned on water and loos. Marvellous

Warren T
Warren T
9 months ago

Mere words cannot express how utterly tickled I am to receive the news that this squabble is over. Now I can get back to other pressing issues, such as the maximum % of cocoa allowed in Belgian chocolate and whether or not French wine labels should contain warnings about the impact of drinking on pregnant men.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
9 months ago

Qu’ils mangent de les hommards!