Fish and frites: France, U.K. and the post-Brexit war over Jersey fish

In early May 2021 some 60 French fishing boats threatened to blockade Jersey’s main port of St. Helier, preventing goods from reaching or leaving the British island located 14 miles (22 km) off France.

The British government’s response was to send two Royal Navy patrol ships, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, to monitor the protests on the Channel island. France’s response was immediate: the government sent two vessels – police boat Athos and patroller Themis – to patrol the area.

At the time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government also called threats by French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin to cut Jersey’s electricity supply, 95 percent of which is delivered by three underwater cables from France, unacceptable.

The episode was the latest chapter in the row between the U.K. and France over fishing rights in the English Channel and shows that, despite the trade deal announced last December with the European Union, some aspects of the post-Brexit relationship are still far from being settled.

Jersey changes licensing agreements

The current dispute is linked to different interpretations of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), that now governs economic relations between the U.K.

and the E.U. after Brexit. The TCA also replaced the 2000 Granville Bay agreement, which used to govern fishing rights in Jersey waters.

Based on the TCA, French fishermen must now show a history of fishing in the area to receive a license to operate in Jersey waters. Following a transitional agreement in January, these new licenses began to be issued by Jersey in late April.

French authorities, however, claim that additional requirements were added without warning. French fishermen, meanwhile, argue that the new requirements are unfair, such as the limit on how many days a vessel can operate in Jersey waters or the type of fish it can catch.

Under pressure from Boris Johnson, who has stressed the need for an urgent de-escalation of tensions and a new dialogue on fishing access, the Jersey authorities have given French fishermen more time to comply with the new rules.

According to the island’s government, the extension until July 1 is a sign of “good faith” that the dispute over France’s post-Brexit rights in the region can be solved. Reciprocally, authorities in the French region of Normandy have lifted the ban on Jersey fishermen landing their catches in their ports.

Post-Brexit tensions

This, however, is by no means the first clash involving the fishing industry since the United Kingdom officially left the European Union on January 1. In April, more than a hundred French fishermen blocked trucks carrying fish from the U.K. to Europe’s largest seafood processing center in the northern French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. At the time, one of the protesters carried a sign that read: “Do you want to keep your waters?

OK … Then keep your fish!”.

The trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union allowed fishermen from the bloc to continue fishing in British waters, but only after they had received a license. These licenses were supposed to be issued swiftly, but according to fishermen in the French region of Hauts-de-France, about 80 percent of the local fleet was still waiting in April.

Also in late April, the Minister of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune made a direct threat to the U.K.: “The U.K. is expecting a number of financial services authorisations from us. We will not give any until we have the guarantees that on fishing and other subjects, the United Kingdom is respecting its commitments.” “Everyone must respect their commitments, otherwise, we will be as brutal and difficult as necessary,” said Mr Beaune, speaking to French TV station BFM, raising the tone in the discussion on fishing rights in the region.

‘Taking back control of our seas’

Even though it represents only 0.12 percent of the U.K. economy, the British fishing industry was a powerful symbol for the Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum. The slogan “Taking back control of our seas” was a symbol of the campaign for Britain to leave the E.U..

The negotiations that followed the confirmation of Brexit saw the U.K. demanding to regain full control of its fishing waters, while the E.U. pressed to prevent the bloc’s fishing fleets from losing access to Britain’s rich waters at once.

Under the free trade agreement signed last December between the U.K. and the European Union, E.U. fishing vessels will continue to have full access to British waters until June 2026, with 25 percent of fishing rights for E.U.

vessels in British waters being transferred to the British fishing fleet during an “adjustment period” of five and a half years — the E.U. was initially proposing a period of 14 years.

With the end of the transition period, negotiations between the two sides are to take place annually. The expectation is that the U.K. will push for higher quotas, and may even exclude E.U. boats from its waters altogether. Such a drastic decision, however, would certainly lead to a retaliation from the E.U., with taxes on British fish exports to the bloc or a veto on access to E.U. waters for British boats.

The European Union has been the main destination for U.K. fish exports in recent years. According to U.K.

Trade Info, fish exports to the E.U. were worth £1.4 billion ($1.98 billion) in 2019, accounting for 67 percent of all fish exports from the U.K. by value. France was U.K.’s biggest export destination in that year, accounting for 28 percent of all fish exports – £561 million ($793 million). Also in 2019, fish imports from the E.U. were worth £1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) – 35 percent of all fish imports to the U.K. by value.

British fishermen, however, complain that the immediate gains from the increased quota of fish they will be able to catch under the new agreement are outweighed by the end of the so-called “quota swap” system, which has hitherto allowed agreements with fishermen from countries in the European bloc.

Many British fishermen, especially those from the southern coast of England, also complain about the fact that the agreement signed last December allows E.U. fishing boats to still operate in the 6-12 nautical mile limit of the UK’s territorial waters – while British fishermen demanded exclusive access up to 12 nautical miles.

A long history of disputes

Tensions between British and French fishermen in the English Channel had last erupted in late August 2018, in the episode that became known as the scallop wars. At the time, French boats attacked British and Scottish ships off the Normandy coast with rocks, smoke bombs and other projectiles.

The attacks were classified at the time by the Scottish White Fish Producers Association as “piracy,” since the British boats were operating legally in the region.

Every year between October 1 and May 15, French law limits commercial scallop fishing to reduce the impact on the shellfish population. The rule, however, does not apply to British fishermen, which led to the wrath of the French.

Six years earlier, on October 10, 2012, 40 French boats cornered their British rivals 15 miles off the coast of Le Havre, throwing rocks and attempting to damage the vessels’ propellers and engines. As justification for the aggression, the French claimed that the British had encroached on the 12 nautical mile exclusion area demarcated by the E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy. The accusation, however, was refuted by the British. Both parties eventually appealed to their respective navies to restore peace in the region.

Almost two decades earlier, in March and April 1993, the two countries clashed again, this time over fishing in the Channel Islands. The episode, which became known as the Cherbourg incident, actually began in September 1992, when the European Union established the exclusive British right to fish within a 6 nautical mile limit around the islands, thus excluding French boats that operated unrestrictedly in the area until then. After a series of incidents between the British Royal Navy and French fishermen, the French government agreed that the 1992 E.U. decision should be enforced.

Fishing tensions between the U.K. and France, however, date back to at least the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, after French fishermen took advantage of the lack of clear legislation to dominate commercial fishing along the British southeast coast, leading in 1833 to an investigation in the House of Commons.

And now, almost two centuries later, a solution that completely pleases British and French fishermen in the English Channel still seems distant – if not unattainable.

Far from settled

The row between France and the United Kingdom exposes two different discourses on what the fish trade between the two countries is really about and what is at stake in this discussion.

The first, which reflects reality and is somewhat omitted by the governments of both countries, shows how much France and the U.K. depend on each other on this issue. If on the one hand French fishermen need access to British waters to catch a good part of what they sell, it is undeniable that British fishermen need the European consumer market, especially the French one, to export what they produce.

The second, however, reflects a political discourse somehow detached from reality, in which both countries appeal to a sense of national pride and sell the idea that only the other side of the table has something to lose in this negotiation. It was this discourse that inflamed British fishermen to support Brexit back in 2016 and that now leads the French to retaliate over post-Brexit fishing rules.

The truth is that the issue is far from being resolved, and the two countries will still need a lot of negotiation – and a bit of reality – to reach a solution that does not jeopardize the fishing industry on either side of the English Channel.

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