Brexit fishing rights: what is row about and what happens next?

The clash between the UK and France over post-Brexit fishing arrangements has gathered pace

For much of the year, British and French ministers have traded threats and accusations over post-Brexit arrangements for fishing waters. But the row now appears to be coming to a head.

What is the clash about?

When the UK left the EU’s single market and customs union on 31 January 2020 – the so-called transition period after the end of the country’s membership of the bloc – it left the common fisheries policy that has peacefully divvied up the spoils of Europe’s waters since the 1970s.

It also ended the Bay of Granville agreement, signed in 2000 by Britain and the self-governing Channel Islands, which had established a pattern of rights for French boats up to three miles from the islands’ coasts.

Within the Brexit trade and cooperation agreement, struck last Christmas Eve, there is a new EU-UK fisheries agreement that offers French fishers a continuation of the status quo in a zone in the waters of Jersey and Guernsey, and in the coastal zone between six and 12 miles from the UK’s shores, up to 2026 – if they can prove that they had previously been operating in those waters.

What is going wrong?

Almost 1,700 EU vessels have now been licensed to fish in UK waters, the UK government says, equating to 98% of EU applications for fishing licences. The percentage figure is disputed in Paris.

The main differences between the two sides are centred on rights within the six- to 12-mile zone off the British coast. Earlier this week, the European Commission said the UK government had approved 15 out of 47 applications for French boats to operate in those coastal waters.

A further 15 applications are being considered where evidence of activity in those waters is limited, but 17 applications have been withdrawn by French applicants because of “poor evidence”.

Of greater concern to the French authorities is that 55 boats applying to fish in the waters off Jersey, a British crown dependency, have also been turned down by the island’s government.

The French government says that the level of evidence being demanded by the authorities is unrealistic and that the UK is acting in breach of its treaty obligations.

On Wednesday the French government said that unless something changed, it would ban British fishing boats from landing seafood in French ports from next Tuesday.

France also vowed to impose onerous checks on cross-Channel trade, and threatened the UK’s energy supply. The UK and Jersey rely on subsea cables bringing energy from French nuclear power stations.

How has Downing Street responded?

Angrily. The French government is threatening to act unilaterally. It does not yet have the support of the other EU member states to go through the dispute resolution mechanism in the trade and cooperation agreement to impose sanctions on the UK.

Downing Street, somewhat ironically given its actions over Northern Ireland, has accused Paris of threatening to break international law.

The government has said that if the French threats come to pass, they “will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response”.

What is going to happen?

While the French government is infuriated by the British government’s attitude to the trade and cooperation agreement, including the separate row over Northern Ireland, the coming presidential election in France is further fuelling the disagreement.

Emmanuel Macron wants to show that he is backing his fishing communities. A full trade dispute appears inevitable, with tit-for-tat measures.

A deadline of Monday 1 November has been set by the French for the problem to be resolved through the issuing of further licences.

It does not seem likely that the UK will respond in a favourable manner to the sabre-rattling, although Jersey’s government announced a few extra permits on Thursday and has said it will consider any further evidence presented by applicants.

The trade and cooperation agreement allows the UK to respond with proportionate sanctions on the French, which will most likely affect those vessels that do have permits to operate.

The situation is likely to get worse, with potential blockades by French fishers of British and Jersey ports, before it gets any better.


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Michel Barnier seeks to end Brexit deadlock with fresh fishing proposal
EU chief responds to Boris Johnson’s request for Brussels to seal deal in final hours

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Heather Stewart in London

18, Dec, 2020 @6:05 PM

Article image
Macron steps back from midnight threat against UK exports in fishing row
UK was braced for immediate measures but French president says ‘talks need to continue’

Daniel Boffey, Rowena Mason and Jamie Grierson

01, Nov, 2021 @9:22 PM

Article image
Macron’s re-election hopes may be driving Brexit fishing row, says Eustice
UK environment secretary accuses France of using ‘inflammatory’ rhetoric in escalating dispute

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

29, Oct, 2021 @8:42 AM

Article image
UK rejects French claim of steps towards agreement over fishing rights row
No 10 says ‘our stance has not changed’ after French officials state Macron and Johnson found path to de-escalating dispute

Peter Walker in Rome

31, Oct, 2021 @3:55 PM

Article image
EU will protect fishing communities in post-Brexit talks
UK also must maintain higher labour and environmental standards, EU tells diplomats

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

14, Jan, 2020 @7:41 PM

Article image
Britain's fishing fleet and Brexit promises – key questions answered
What happened to domestic fishing after the final 1976 cod war? And what pledges did Gove make on Brexit?

Dan Roberts

23, Mar, 2018 @1:31 PM

Article image
No 10 fishing offer to EU raises hopes of Brexit deal before Christmas
UK negotiators reduce demand for EU catch reduction, potentially unlocking sticking point in talks

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Peter Walker

21, Dec, 2020 @8:12 PM

Article image
Brexit hurdles and solutions: Boris Johnson's Brussels to-do list
Analysis: Fishing quotas and standards will be on the list of key areas the prime minister will have to tackle

Dan Sabbagh and Daniel Boffey

09, Dec, 2020 @7:18 AM

Article image
May to warn MPs that rejecting Brexit deal would put UK 'back to square one'
The PM faces a battle to get her plan, which Jeremy Corbyn has called ‘a miserable failure’, through parliament

Heather Stewart and Daniel Boffey in Brussels

25, Nov, 2018 @10:30 PM

Article image
Brexit: what are the key flashpoints as EU-UK trade talks begin?
Time is tight to iron out future relationship before transition period ends on 31 December

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

01, Mar, 2020 @2:12 PM