Sign up for our Europe Express newsletter
Don’t miss your essential guide to what matters in Europe today. Delivered every weekday morning.
The UK has summoned the French ambassador after France detained a British trawler in an escalation of a long-running dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights.
Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, said: “I have instructed Europe minister Wendy Morton to summon the French ambassador to the UK for talks tomorrow to explain the disappointing and disproportionate threats made against the UK and Channel Islands.”
Paris announced on Wednesday night that it would increase customs and sanitary controls on freight at the border, make stricter checks of trucks coming in and leaving France, and ban trawlers from landing their catch in some French ports if the dispute over fishing rights was not resolved. France also repeated a threat to reduce electricity supplies to the UK.
The British trawler Cornelis Gert Jan was forced to dock in Le Havre and its captain appeared in court on Thursday accused of illegally fishing for scallops, and could face a €75,000 fine.
France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune said in a television interview on Thursday that the new stricter controls were aimed at forcing the UK back to the table to issue more fishing licences after months of discussions. “It is time to speak the language of force because I fear that it is all the government of the UK understands,” he said on CNews. “There will be zero tolerance and no compromises.”
A UK government spokesperson described the French actions as “unjustified” and said they “do not appear to be compatible on the EU’s part with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) or wider international law”.
But the island of Jersey bowed to French pressure on Thursday and increased the number boats allowed to fish in its territorial waters. The self-governing island, which is dependent on Britain for defence, said it was “extremely disappointed” that France was “pursuing an approach of retaliatory measures”.
It said it had added 20 more permits for French vessels, bringing the total number licensed to fish in its territorial waters to 162 from Friday. Of these, 113 are permanent and 49 temporary, ending on January 31 2022. But 55 more vessels will still lose their rights from Sunday.
The UK government said the French proposals, which threaten to disrupt trade through the important Dover-Calais route, probably breached its post-Brexit accord with the EU.
“We repeat that the government has granted 98 per cent of licence applications from EU vessels to fish in the UK’s waters and, as has consistently been made clear, will consider any further evidence on the remainder.”
The European Commission said it was in talks with the two sides to “resolve this issue as soon as possible”. “All French vessels entitled to a licence should receive one,” it added. Its officials were involved in the deal with Jersey.
Tensions over fishing rights have been simmering for months after the UK rejected requests by some small French boats to fish in British waters under the Brexit accord. Those who can prove they have fished historically are entitled to a licence to continue.
Britain after Brexit newsletter
Keep up to date with the latest developments, post-Brexit, with original weekly insights from our public policy editor Peter Foster and senior FT writers. Sign up here.
Around 1,700 EU vessels have received licences but the dispute is over the right of fewer than 200 mostly French vessels to fish in waters six to 12 nautical miles off Britain’s shores, or in the seas off the island of Jersey.
France claims that only half of those eligible had been given licences to continue fishing even after it had furnished data and documents of past fishing activity by these boats to support the applications.
The commission and EU member states have yet to back France’s call for action against the UK, but Brussels has been examining evidence of historic fishing from French boats.
Peter Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser, said: “This is not the way Britain and France should be dealing with each other. Rather than both sides trying to show how tough they are, we need quiet negotiations to work out a sensible compromise before this gets out of hand and starts to do real economic damage. Or in other words, some diplomacy.”
Trade SecretsThe FT has revamped Trade Secrets, its must-read daily briefing on the changing face of international trade and globalisation.
Sign up here to understand which countries, companies and technologies are shaping the new global economy.