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29 October 2021

Michael Gasiorek is Professor of Economics and Director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex.

The impounding of a UK fishing boat by the French authorities on Thursday is symptomatic of the tensions in the wider political relationship between the UK and France, which goes beyond the implementation of the fisheries part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the EU. It is also symptomatic of the political importance of the fisheries sector on both sides of the Channel. Brexit was about ‘taking back control’, and with regard to fishing, for the UK Government, that meant taking back control of UK waters. The actual agreement, however, fell far short of what the fisheries industry had hoped for.

The proximate cause of the current dispute is about the rights to ‘inshore’ fishing – that is to say the rights – for the UK – to fish between 6-12 nautical miles off the coast of France, and vice versa. The TCA allowed for a continuation of the rights to inshore fishing, but that a licence to do so would be required. To obtain a licence, fishing vessels need to show that they had historically fished in those waters. Recently, the UK Government granted licences to a number of French vessels – but not to all of them. That has upset the French authorities. What happened on Thursday was that a UK fishing vessel was impounded on the grounds that it did not have the necessary licence to fish in French waters.

In a broader context, the French Government is deeply unhappy about the stance taken by the UK Government with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and has been one of the EU Member States pushing the EU Commission to take a harder line in the negotiations with the UK. Essentially, they believe the UK Government is not acting in good faith over the Northern Ireland Protocol, by wishing to renegotiate it and by threatening the invocation of Article 16, suspending the Protocol. The dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol is about what checks are necessary and on which goods being sold by Britain into Northern Ireland.

Leaving aside the issue of whether France was legally entitled or not to seize the boat – as there seem to be mixed messages over this as to whether the French knew the boat had a licence – the seizure is symptomatic of post-Brexit tensions. On the French side, an overtly aggressive action was taken to impound a boat and to threaten further measures ranging from increased customs checks on freight traffic between the UK and France to restricting electricity supply to Jersey. The UK side then felt the need to respond strongly by summoning the French ambassador to the Foreign Office. The matter is primarily administrative / technical yet it has escalated into something political.  The politics probably suit both sides: for President Macron with an election coming up in the Spring and for the UK government because it believes this resonates well with the electorate.

This issue is not going to lead to a trade war. Technically it could: if either side does not honour the agreement with regard to fishing then the other side is entitled to retaliate both by suspending access not only within the fisheries sector but also in other sectors. In addition, the French authorities can legitimately undergo more detailed inspections of freight traffic coming into / out of France and thus apply the checks more stringently than has been the case until now. However, the likelihood is extremely high that this particular issue will be resolved through negotiation – involving no doubt some increase in licences to French boats and with both sides claiming ‘victory’.

Nevertheless, it does reflect an underlying tension between France, the EU, and the UK, notably over the renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol. It is possible that those broader tensions may spill over into a trade war, but that too is highly unlikely. However, those wider issues will not be quickly resolved and in the meantime, we can expect a continuation of the tensions, future flashpoints, and the possibility that legitimate checks on freight traffic by the French authorities may increase, with additional costs and delays for some UK exporters. Let us not forget that while overall the effect of such flashpoints may prove relatively minor economically, they do have consequences for individual producers be this in the fishing industry or more widely.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.

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