Britain and France don’t need a fish fight
In normal times, inspections by the French and British of each other’s vessels, fishing or otherwise, is usually a routine activity that is in the interest of both countries. These are historic allies and neighbors who are linked by geography and a shared ethos that values democracy, respect for the rule of law, liberty, freedom of speech, a laissez-faire economy and respect for human rights, among other things.
One hopes that the current squabble over fishing rights will not permanently sour a bilateral relationship in which many interests have aligned and developed in the past century, along with the outlooks of the two nations on state and society.
Yet the language used in recent statements from authorities on both sides of the English Channel, or “La Manche” as the French prefer, borders on the surreal. Every reasonable fisherman, bureaucrat and government minister, even the prime ministers and president, know damn well that the inflammatory rhetoric being employed is clearly damaging to both nations.
This is true regardless of what is driving that rhetoric. A narrow-minded agenda, for example, bent on demonstrating to supporters of Brexit in the UK that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s (so called populist) government will not be bullied by France or the EU, and will act based on its own best interests and hard-earned independence after leaving the EU.
On the French side, it might fall within the parameters of mere electioneering, as President Emmanuel Macron attempts to boost his political standing ahead of next April’s elections by appearing to be tough in his efforts to defend his country’s national interests. Or maybe the threats are intended to serve as a means of raising the stakes for other EU countries by making an example of the UK in case any other nations might consider a Brexit project of their own.
If nothing else, the arguments and threats reveal how easily relations can plummet to a new low. Even a meeting between Macron and Johnson in Rome on Sunday failed to draw a line under this acrimonious row over post-Brexit fishing rights.
France has threatened to ban British fishing boats from unloading catches at French ports, as has been the norm for decades, and to impose checks on all products arriving in France from Britain. Macron went so far as to order London to give up some ground in the dispute or France will trigger reprisals. The “ball is in Britain’s court,” he added.
Meanwhile, the UK has said it will trigger dispute-resolution measures relating to the post-Brexit trade deal to seek compensation for any damage that is caused, and urged the French to withdraw their threats.
Fishing is a not a core sector of the economic landscape for either country — its contribution to their gross domestic product of each country is said to be is only 0.1 percent and it has no strategic importance — but yet it is a sector that can stir patriotic sentiments whenever either side feels its fishing stock or waters have been subjected to an infringement by the other.
Macron appeared to back down on Tuesday on his more dire threats of reprisals, and further talks will take place on Thursday in an effort to resolve the dispute. Nevertheless, this long week of tit-for-tat exchanges, heated statements, threats and warnings could easily continue to escalate and get out of hand, causing major damage to the stature of the second and third-biggest European economies. There is also something woven into the fabric of both societies that resembles a sibling rivalry. This could easily reignite centuries of competition and reopen old wounds and does not need to be tested.
In observing recent exchanges, it is impossible to ignore the underlying Anglo-French rivalry and how easily it can descend into suspicion and hostility. This could be seen recently in the Paris-London row over migrants crossing the channel, or the tripartite US-UK-Australia nuclear submarine deal that prompted the French to accuse the British and Americans of stabbing them in the back.
At the recent G20 Summit in Rome, or during COP26, the UN’s Climate Change Conference which is currently taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, one might have thought that with a wink from Johnson and a nod from Macron, and in the spirit of the many Brexit extensions to date, a period of grace would have been granted to the few dozen fishing boats denied access to British waters, until bureaucrats on both sides can sieve through the documents to process license applications from French fishermen.
The UK has pointed out that it has granted more than 90 percent of all fishing licenses requested by EU countries since Brexit came into full effect at the start of this year. As it happens, the remaining small percentage of unprocessed licenses apparently are for French vessels.
The worry here is that the bad faith and counterproductive games could, in time, affect wider relations between the countries. The UK and France are long-time allies; the sacrifices of their soldiers in two world wars ultimately led to the establishment of the current world order. Despite the present-day British skepticism about the EU, wartime UK leader Winston Churchill called for some form of united Europe in the 1940s. Some even suggest that the EU itself was an extension of the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale, in an effort to provide a mechanism that could prevent disputes caused by clashes of national interests.
With Britain’s exit from the EU, the mechanism for managing such quarrels remains up in the air. The post-Brexit UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement is a rushed compromise that cannot immediately replace the seamless rules that previously governed things such as fishing quotas, car-manufacturing rules, the financial sector, agriculture and the state subsidies connected with all these areas to ensure fair competition.
Boatloads of rotting fish on both sides of the Channel will only serve to fuel suspicion and hate among the age-old allies.
In the past, the EU Common Fisheries Policy set out and maintained quotas, and the fishing fleets of all nations were synchronized. Brexit has clearly shifted the landscape on which such decades-old practices were built, and the fear is that punitive measures applied by the UK might destroy fishing communities in France.
Punitive measures imposed by France, meanwhile, might hurt communities in Jersey and Guernsey, or result in extra checks on goods heading to the UK. This could disrupt supply chains and cause problems for French manufacturers that rely on parts or goods they ship to British factories.
This dispute is therefore a zero-sum game and both sides need to avoid it spiraling out of control. Boatloads of rotting fish on both sides of the Channel will only serve to fuel suspicion and hate among the age-old allies, adding another challenge to the many adversities that liberal democracies such as France and the UK are grappling with currently.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.