Slippery business: Of fish, France and Britain

John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.

CALVADOS, France — In terms of economic importance, fish are sprats; politically, they have the power of sharks.

France and Britain are siblings and neighbors who squabble frequently over their watery garden fence (when they are not sitting down to tea or champagne).

When those two certainties of European politics collide, you enter treacherous waters.

Will France reduce electricity supplies to the United Kingdom and Jersey, in a dispute over 125 fishing licenses for small boats?

Will French fishermen block the Channel Tunnel and the Port of Calais, deepening the British supply chain crisis, because they have been deprived of the right to cast their nets in a sliver of the sea, 6-miles wide?

The answers to these two questions are “maybe” and “quite possibly,” respectively.

This latest European fishing dispute is all the more perilous because it is enmeshed in a wider Anglo-European quarrel. Brussels is taking a patient, plodding approach to post-Brexit British provocations. Paris, less so.

The most recent Anglo-French fish fight is less surprising when you consider the political motivations both Paris and London have for keeping it going: French President Emmanuel Macron faces a tough and unpredictable election in six months’ time, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is looking for distractions and scapegoats as reality starts to contradict his cheerful bluster about a plucky, triumphant, stand-alone Brexit Britain.

Macron is also furious with Johnson because of Britain’s part in Australia’s decision to sever a €56 billion submarine contract with France. At the same time, Britain accuses France of failing to prevent illegal migrants from crossing the Strait of Dover.

To that must be added the curious power of fish — a force strong enough to shape the geography of the European Union. Norway decided not to join in 1972 because it did not want to share its fish stocks with its neighbors. Iceland has never wanted to join, and Greenland left in 1985 — a “Grexit” often forgotten — because fish were so important to their economies.

In France and Britain, the industry is vital to a few politically sensitive areas — Pas de Calais, Brittany and Normandy in France; parts of Scotland and southwest England in the U.K. But for the countries as a whole, the economic impact of fisheries is miniscule: 0.06 percent of France’s economy and 0.1 percent of the U.K.’s.

Yet, fish are important symbols of national pride for both countries. In France, food issues always take on importance beyond their weight in kilos or euros. And in Britain, public opinion is sensitive — or easily manipulated — when it comes to the country’s status as an island and maritime power. That’s why fish occupied a large part of Britain’s energy in the Brexit negotiations, despite the industry’s small size compared to, say, financial services.

The present dispute concerns a concession made by the U.K. at the last moment of those talks. A limited number of Continental boats — mostly French and Belgian — were permitted to continue fishing (as they have for centuries) up to 6 miles from some parts of the southeast English and Channel Islands coasts.

These boats were to be given licenses if they could prove that they had fished in this zone in recent years. French ministers promised that this would be a “formality.” Ten months later, Britain and Jersey have issued only 325 of the 450 licenses sought by France.

French fishermen — and the French government — are now accusing Britain of trying to claw back with bad faith and petty bureaucracy part of its fisheries defeat in the Brexit deal. They point to the much more cooperative approach of another Channel Islands autonomous government in Guernsey.

Larger boats with satellite tracking devices have been able to prove their past movements. However, dozens of small French boats, under 12 meters long, have failed to produce documentary proof to satisfy London and St Helier.

In May, when the dispute first erupted, Paris foolishly threatened to cut the power cables that supply 95 percent of the electricity to Jersey. This threat was partially withdrawn last week, when the French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune conceded that France would never switch off the lights in all Jersey homes (and hospitals). He warned, however, that Paris might reduce the flow of electricity to the island — and also to the British mainland, which takes 7 percent of its power from France.

French fishermen are also threatening to take their own action to block the Channel ports and the Channel Tunnel, unless the dispute is resolved by the end of this month.

Compared to other U.K.-EU squabbles, such as the Northern Ireland border dispute, the fish fight does not trouble other EU countries very much.

Paris insists, however, that these disputes are linked — that they are part of a pattern of aggression by the Johnson government to distract from Brexit calamities. Senior Elysée officials say that Macron has lost all patience with his British counterpart and that he wants to deploy all possible means to disprove what he sees as the core lie of Brexit — that the U.K. is exempt from the need to honor agreements and cooperate with its neighbors.

What Macron doesn’t seem to have considered is that a cross-Channel war may be precisely what Johnson wants. There is nothing that the embattled British government would like more than to change the subject — to noyer le poisson — and distract the public from its self-inflicted energy and supply chain crises with an old-fashioned battle with the wicked French.

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