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29 October 2021

Why are France and Britain arguing about fishing boats – again?

As relations between the two countries continue to disintegrate, it’s worth remembering that France and the UK retain considerable shared strategic interests.

By Stephen Bush

Franco-British relations have deteriorated further, after a British trawler was detained at Le Havre in an escalation of a long-running dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights. The French ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office to talk the dispute over with the Europe minister, Wendy Morton. 

The cause of the row? Under the terms of the EU-UK trade deal, French boats can continue to fish freely in British waters, but they can’t launch new fishing expeditions in British waters.

The British government has rejected the fishing licences of a number of French boats because they lack the equipment required to prove they were fishing in UK waters before Brexit. 

The British government believes its actions are perfectly legal under the terms of the EU-UK deal and, for what it’s worth, that’s also the opinion of several independent experts I consulted this morning. But it causes a political headache for the French government, further worsening relations that were already sore due to the United Kingdom’s participation in Aukus (which saw France lose out on a lucrative contract to provide Australian submarines) and the back and forth over the Northern Ireland protocol, and with the presidential election looming next May. 

What happens next? It’s easy to forget because relations between the two governments are so bad, but France and the UK retain considerable shared strategic interests and important areas of mutual cooperation. Both governments are firmly pro-nuclear at a time when many countries within the European Union want to keep using coal and gas to heat their homes – a vital area of agreement ahead of Cop26. The two governments are involved in joint military operations against jihadist terror. And both countries have a shared interest in navigating a world in which the United States looks set to remain increasingly unreliable. 

As with the continual row over the Northern Ireland protocol, the question has to be asked: is an officious response to ageing French fishing vessels really worth the candle?

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