France’s ambassador in London was summoned and two Royal Navy patrol vessels were put on a state of “high readiness” to tackle potential port blockades by French fishing boats as the row over post-Brexit access to British waters escalated.
The dramatic moves followed French threats to clog British exports in red tape over a lack of fishing licences for their fishing vessels and inflammatory claims that Downing Street had made a “political choice” to damage the country’s coastal communities.
With tensions high, UK government defence sources said they were awaiting a distress call from Jersey, a British crown dependency, as the row over post-Brexit fishing rights looked in danger of bubbling over.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We regret the confrontational language that has been consistently used by the French government on this issue, which makes this situation no easier to resolve.
“We have raised our concerns strongly with both the French and the EU Commission. As a next step, the foreign secretary has instructed [Europe] minister Wendy Morton to summon the French ambassador.”
A dispute over the issuing of permits to French boats operating in the coastal waters of the UK and Jersey has ramped up ahead of the weekend expiry date on current licences. Paris said it would ban British fishing boats from key ports from next Tuesday, vowed to impose onerous checks on cross-Channel trade, and threatened the UK’s energy supply unless further permits were issued.
Clément Beaune, France’s EU affairs minister, further turned up the heat on Thursday by claiming Downing Street was reneging on its obligation to maintain French fishers’ access to its coastal waters out of political convenience.
There is also a recognition in London, and the Channel island’s capital, St Helier, of the danger that angry French fishers whose permits will expire this weekend could seek to extract concessions by using their boats to close down key ports.
Defence sources said there was no immediate sign of a request for help from Jersey, though it was acknowledged the situation could change. “The intention is to calm the situation down, although ships remain ready if the situation were to suddenly escalate,” the source added.
No 10 said the British ambassador in Paris had been in touch with Beaune, and the UK environment secretary, George Eustice, was in contact with his French opposite number. “We are still working to understand the details,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said.
They added that the “disappointing and disproportionate threats” were “not what we’d expect from a close ally”. French sanctions “would be met with an appropriate and calibrated response”, No 10 said.
Olivier Lepretre, the head of the Hauts-de-France region’s fishing council, said: “I think it is always better to negotiate because we all know that if we go to war, the fishermen of both countries will lose. I am convinced of it.”
In the early hours of Thursday morning, French maritime police had seized the British trawler Cornelis Gert Jan off the coast of Normandy for allegedly fishing without a permit. A second boat was given a warning.
The French government said the checks had been routine but admitted they had been conducted “in the context of the discussion on licences with the UK and the European Commission”.
Earlier this week, the commission said the UK government had approved 15 out of 47 applications for French boats to operate in the UK’s coastal waters. A further 15 applications were being considered where evidence of activity in those waters was limited, but 17 applications had been withdrawn by French applicants because of “poor evidence”.
Of greater concern to the French authorities, however, is the high number of boats applying to fish in the waters off Jersey that have been turned down by the island’s government.
In a joint statement, Jersey’s ministers for external affairs and environment, Ian Gorst and John Young, said they would issue two extra permanent permits and 15 temporary ones, reducing the number being rejected to 55 from 75.
“We are extremely disappointed at the French government’s announcement, made yesterday afternoon, pursuing an approach of retaliatory measures,” they said.
It also emerged on Thursday that a key government committee has been examining the consequences of the UK triggering article 16, suspending parts of a protocol in the withdrawal agreement which sets out the post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.