UK threatens legal action over French fish spat

LONDON — The French and British ended a fractious week with threats of retaliation against each other for failing to stick to the letter of the law.

The U.K. on Friday threatened legal action under the Brexit trade deal if France retaliates over Britain’s allocation of post-Brexit fishing permits.

The fishing spat was raised in Friday’s meeting between David Frost, the U.K.’s Brexit minister, and European Commission Vice President Maros Šefčovič — a meeting intended to wrap up a week of negotiations by the two sides over trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, France threatened increased checks on British fishing boats and trucks if the U.K. doesn’t issue fishing permits to all the French fishers who have applied for one. Paris is also considering tariffs on electricity to the Channel Islands, and has called for EU-U.K. cooperation in other areas to be frozen until the fishing dispute is solved.

Frost told his EU counterpart over a lunch — featuring smoked salmon, naturally — that French retaliation is “unjustified,” and would amount to a breach of the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

The British argue they are entitled to request evidence of previous fishing before granting licenses, but the French counter the U.K. has failed to honor their commitment to allow their boats to continue fishing in U.K. waters after Brexit.

“The government is accordingly considering the possibility, in those circumstances, of launching dispute settlement proceedings under the TCA, and of other practical responses, including implementing rigorous enforcement processes and checks on EU fishing activity in U.K. territorial waters, within the terms of the TCA,” a U.K. spokesperson said.

The French ambassador in London, Catherine Colonna, was summoned to a meeting Friday with the U.K.’s Europe Minister Wendy Morton to explain the French threats.

EU officials are expected to hold further technical talks on the fishing licenses in Brussels over the weekend, according to an EU official and a French Sea Ministry adviser. “We are going to try and hash it out and make white smoke,” the latter said.

According to an EU readout, Šefčovič encouraged the U.K. to intensify discussions with the Commission and France, but a Commission spokesperson was clear: “All French vessels entitled to a license should receive one.”

Two weeks of talks on easing the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol have achieved little, with Brussels insisting the agreement is not up for renegotiation and London demanding changes to the rules on state aid, VAT and the role of the Court of Justice of the EU in the region.

The U.K. continues to warn it will suspend the Northern Ireland protocol (or parts of it) next month if the EU rejects its demands.

“Our position remains that substantial changes to the protocol will be needed if we are to find a sustainable solution that works in the best interests of Northern Ireland and supports the Belfast [Good Friday peace] Agreement,” the U.K. spokesperson said.

The Commission insisted its proposals address concerns raised by the people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and called on the U.K. government to engage constructively.

“It is now essential to find common ground between the EU and U.K.’s respective positions,” a Commission spokesperson said. “We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to find stable solutions as soon as possible.”

EU and British officials will continue their talks on the Northern Ireland protocol next week in Brussels. Šefčovič and Frost will take stock again at a face-to-face meeting in the Belgian capital on Friday.

The U.K. and Polish prime ministers held a phone call Friday to discuss next week’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, defense and security cooperation and the U.K.-EU row over the protocol.

Boris Johnson outlined “the need to make urgent progress” on the talks with the Commission, “underlined his concerns about the role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland and noted the debate in Poland about the role of the Court too,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

The call is likely to have raised eyebrows in Brussels, as the EU and Poland are embroiled in a separate row over the supremacy of EU law.

Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting.

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