Post-Brexit Trade Deal Causes UK-France Dispute Over Fishing Rights

On October 27th, France detained a British fishing trawler. This was largely due to the months of rising tensions caused by alleged violations of fishing licenses. France contends that Britain is not upholding a deal regarding British fishing grounds post-Brexit. As such, France is now taking retaliatory measures.

This dispute is the latest in a long list of “cross-Channel flare-ups” over fishing rights, many of which have led to “accusation of bad faith, threats and even a brief naval standoff in May,” according to the New York Times. French president, Emmanuel Macron, expressed frustration at the situation, saying that “when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility.”

In the grand scheme, a few hundred-fishing licenses hardly seem worth an international dispute, but they symbolize something bigger to France: Britain’s failure to honor an agreement. A deal was struck in December 2020, which allowed European fishermen to continue working in some British waters if they could prove that they were fishing there pre-Brexit. They failed, however, to agree on what qualified as ‘proof,’ which has supposedly caused Britain to deny permission to many French vessels. Britain’s Brexit secretary, David Frost, denies this and contends that they had “granted 98 percent of license applications from EU vessels to fish in our waters.” French maritime minister, Annick Girardin, on the other hand, reports that the correct figure is 90 percent and that most of the boats that had not received permission were French.

British officials have claimed that the French anger is a political tactic being used by President Emmanuel Macron, who is facing a difficult re-election campaign this year. This mentality, however, discounts the distrust that exists between France and Britain due to Brexit. Macron believes that the Boris Johnson government cannot be trusted, and the latest fishing license dispute only furthers those suspicions. The fishing row has come only a short while after Britain, along with Australia and the United States, signed the AUKUS treaty. This agreement kicked France out of a “long-standing submarine deal with Australia in favor of the U.S.,” according to CBA. Following this alliance, France recalled its ambassadors from both Canberra and Washington. This incident has further corroded the already fragile relationship between the two countries.

This is not the only instance of tension between the British government and other European nations post-Brexit. As such, France has proposed sanctions against London to show that the Brexit decision has costs. The French government believes “it is essential to make clear to European public opinion that… leaving the Union is more damaging than remaining in it,” according to French prime minister, Jean Castex. Thus, they would like the EU to respond accordingly.

It is apparent that there is an issue with the implementation of the trade agreement. However, this recent incident has had little economic impact on both nations. According to the World Bank, fishing accounts for “less than half of one percent of gross domestic product” in either country. As such, it indicates that France’s frustration is about more than just fishing licenses. According to the New York Times, fishing was one of the “thorniest issues when Britain negotiated its new trade agreement with the European Union.” This deal went into action in January 2021, so the U.K. and other signatories are bound to abide by the terms of the agreement. As such, the British officials need to engage in constructive conversation with the French government to help come to an agreement that will not involve fining fishermen or barring all fishing vessels from ports, which would put their livelihoods at stake.

While the larger issue at hand appears to be involving the trade agreement made post-Brexit, a resolution to the ‘fish war’ does need to be found. The root of the problems lies in the fact that neither signing party defined the specific documentation needed to continue to fish in British waters. The involved parties should discuss what acceptable forms of proof need to be submitted to meet this requirement. This solution will help streamline the licensing process and remove the grey area of the application process. Since both nations should ideally agree upon proper proof, France could rest assured that any denial by Britain would not be arbitrary in nature, but rather that the fishing vessel did not meet the requirements.

The Brexit solution is a bit more complex in nature. Britain’s choice to leave the European Union took a hard toll on many diplomatic relationships. As such, some nations are wary of Britain in general (especially those which want to prevent other member states from leaving the union). This distrust is only made worse by the fact that the British government appears to be going back on its word only months after an agreement was signed. That is not a sign of trustworthiness to many, including France. While economic sanctions, as France is currently proposing, are not the proper method to solve this issue, Britain does need to be held accountable. A conversation facilitated by a neutral party could effectively solve this dispute. Should this attempt at a resolution be unsuccessful, and Britain continues to break the trade agreement, further actions, including economic sanctions, should be discussed by the affected parties. While this is not an especially dire issue that requires extensive foreign intervention, given enough time, it could permanently fracture the relationship between the U.K, France, and potentially the European Union.

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