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France seizes British trawler: the post-Brexit fishing dispute explained

A British trawler has been seized by France and another fined as tensions escalate over post-Brexit fishing rights.

The ships were cautioned during “classic checks” yesterday off Le Havre, a port in the Normandy region, France’s Maritime Minister Annick Girardin announced in a tweet. This is “not a war but this a combat”, she told French media.

The crackdown came came as Paris “pledged to ban all British seafood imports from next week in retaliation for the government’s decision not to grant more fishing licences to French trawlers in British waters”, The Times reported.

Hostile terms

The Brexit deal included an agreement that French boats under 12 metres in length would be allowed to fish within the UK’s inshore waters – provided they had a proven record of fishing in those areas and the relevant licence. 

France claimed this agreement had been breached after the UK and Jersey last month decided to deny fishing licences to dozens of French boats.

Although fishing accounts for only a small part of the economy on both sides of the Channel, it carries significant political symbolism, in part because regaining control over UK waters was a pivotal part of the Leave campaign in 2016.

Under the Brexit fishing deal, EU boats would “continue to fish in UK waters for some years to come”, but UK fishing boats would “get a greater share of the fish from UK waters”, as the BBC explained after the agreement came into force in January.

A shift in the share is due to be phased in between now and 2026, after which the UK would have the right to completely exclude EU boats.

Wave of threats

Paris has pledged to ban all British seafood imports and to increase customs checks on lorries arriving from and leaving for the UK. And a second wave of retaliatory measures involving the supply of electricity to the Channel Islands is also in the pipeline, the French authorities have warned.

“The French state will continue to support its fisheries industry,” Emmanuel Macron’s government said yesterday.  The UK’s Brexit Minister David Frost responded that “it is very disappointing that France has felt it necessary to make threats”.

The threats have not come out of the blue, however. Earlier this month, France’s Minister for Europe Clement Beaune – a “close ally” of Macron, according to The Guardian – said the Brexit deal had to be “implemented fully” to avoid Paris taking “European or national measures to exert pressure on the UK”.

The warning followed reports that French fishermen were threatening to disrupt Christmas for Britons by cutting off crucial supplies if the terms of the Brexit agreement relating to fishing were not honoured. 

As the row escalates, many fishermen feel stuck in the middle. Barrie Deas of the UK’s National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the “tit for tat” relationship between Britain and France was “unhelpful”.

Andrew Brown, director of Macduff Shellfish, which owns the detained vessel, told Sky News that the boat was a “pawn” in the dispute between the two countries, and that its fishing activity has been “entirely legal”.