A major trade dispute has broken out between the UK and France after Paris banned British fishing boats from key ports, vowed to impose onerous checks on cross-Channel trade, and threatened the UK’s energy supply over a row over post-Brexit rights to UK waters.
The move prompted a dramatic response from Downing Street where a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said the UK government would retaliate over what was a described as a potential breach of international law.
A UK government spokesperson said: “France’s threats are disappointing and disproportionate, and not what we would expect from a close ally and partner.
“The measures being threatened do not appear to be compatible with the trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) and wider international law, and, if carried through, will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response. We will be relaying our concerns to the EU Commission and French government.”
Lord Frost later said: “It is very disappointing that France has felt it necessary to make threats late this evening against the UK fishing industry and seemingly traders more broadly.”
The government would seek “urgent clarification” of France’s plans and “will consider what further action is necessary in that light”, he said.
Earlier, Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, said a British fishing boat had been handed over to French authorities near le Havre, saying it did not have a fishing licence. A second vessel was also warned, she said.
The developments mark a low mark in British-French relations in recent years, and comes at a sensitive time in the negotiations between Brussels and London over the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland. “This risks bleeding into that issue,” a diplomatic source said.
The French government has been infuriated in recent months by the response of the authorities in the UK and Jersey to post-Brexit applications from French fishing vessels to permits to its waters which are regulated by the EU-UK trade deal agreed on Christmas Eve last year.
Earlier this week, the European Commission said the UK government had approved 15 out of 47 applications for French boats to operate in the so-called 6-12 mile zone from the British coast.
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applications are being considered where evidence of activity in those waters is limited, but 17 applications have been withdrawn by French applicants because of “poor evidence”.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, a third of boats applying to fish in the waters off Jersey, a British crown dependency, have also been turned down by the island’s government.
France has been consistently pushing the EU to take a stronger stance against the UK over its concerns that Johnson’s government is acting in breach of its obligations over post-Brexit fishing access to Channel waters.
On Wednesday, a government spokesperson in Paris said France was now unilaterally drawing up a list of sanctions, claiming the UK and Jersey authorities had “introduced new conditions [on permits] not provided for in the trade and cooperation agreement”.
A French government spokesperson said: “Despite 10 months of intense discussions, the UK government has still not honoured its signature, so from 2 November the government will adopt targeted measures, including: ban on landing of British fishing vessels in designated ports; strengthening of sanitary and customs controls; systematic safety checks of British ships; reinforcement of controls on lorries to and from the United Kingdom.”
“It’s a first series of measures,” French EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune said. “Either this first series of measures leads to a dialogue about the licences, then that’s good. Or these measures do not lead to the deal being implemented and we will take other measures, including on the supply of electricity, for example.”
“Our objective is not to impose these measures, it is to get the licences,” he added.
The government statement said France wanted an emergency meeting of the body responsible for the UK-EU trade deal “to consider all European measures likely to restore the rights resulting from the trade and cooperation agreement, in particular the activation of corrective measures.”
The French statement added: “A second series of measures is being prepared. In this context, France does not rule out reviewing the energy supply provided to the United Kingdom.”
“No other subject of European cooperation with the United Kingdom will be able to progress without restoring confidence and fully implementing the agreements signed,” the statement added.
French ministers have in recent days threatened to cut off energy supplies to the island. Jersey has awarded 95 licences to French fishers and is giving a further 75 fishers until mid-November to supply sufficient evidence they were genuine and had fished for 10 days during the past three years.
EU sources admitted, however, that it was yet to be seen whether the applications from French fishers were valid and whether unilateral action from Paris was legal. “If it’s not an EU action, can the French actually do anything?” one source in Brussels said. “They’re in a state of ignorance. [The French president] Emmanuel Macron’s position is beleaguered.”
Under the post-Brexit deal on fishing, EU fishers seeking to access British seas had to apply for new licences that would be granted providing they could prove that they had worked in British waters in previous years.
In total, the UK has granted almost 1,700 licences to EU boats to fish in waters classed as being part of its exclusive economic zone, which stretches between 12 and 200 nautical miles from the coast, equating to 98% of applicants.
The UK government admitted to breaking international law last year through its unilateral measures in relation to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements.