Tensions are rising once again in the Channel. After ministers granted UK fishing licences to just 12 of 47 French applicants, French fisherman and ministers are now issuing a panoply of new threats.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said they denied the majority of the requests because the boats were not able to show sufficient evidence of having historically fished in British waters. But France has claimed the move flies in the face of last year’s Brexit agreement.
Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesman, called the decision “unacceptable”, adding: “The Brexit agreement is not respected … we will examine possible means to retaliate.”
Britain has been here before. In May, French officials threatened to block a post-Brexit deal on financial services between the EU and the UK if ministers failed to give French vessels access to British waters.
At the time, ministers were in talks with EU bureaucrats about establishing a financial services deal between the two sides, as the industry was largely excluded from the Brexit trade deal. Clement Beaune, the French minister for European Affairs, said: “We will give no [deal] – it is quid pro quo.”
The warning was supposed to highlight the precariousness of the City of London’s position post-Brexit, but failed.
After months of threats and wrangling with the bloc, the UK abandoned hopes during the summer that Brussels would give firms in the Square Mile access to EU markets. This means that threats against the City no longer pack a punch as ministers looked to enhance its partnerships with other global markets instead of pursuing a deal with the EU.
In his first Mansion House speech in July, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, said his “ambition” to secure a so-called equivalence deal with the block “has not happened”.
“Now, we are moving forward, continuing to cooperate on questions of global finance, but each as a sovereign jurisdiction with our own priorities. We now have the freedom to do things differently and better, and we intend to use it fully,” he said.
So the French now have one less tactic to deploy in trying to coerce Boris Johnson’s government to permit more of its vessels to British waters.
Instead, fishermen have responded by threatening to block the Channel tunnel and officials in Jersey now fear that French ministers will make good their threats of cutting off the largest Channel Islands’ energy supply. Jersey receives 95pc of its electricity through three underwater cables from France.
The situation is also not helped by the recent deterioration in relations between the two countries after France reacted angrily in recent weeks over a new security deal between Britain, the US and Australia.
French sea minister Annick Girardin told Le Monde: “It is a new refusal of the British to apply the conditions of the Brexit accord despite all the work undertaken together. I have only one watchword; to obtain definitive licences for our fishermen as the accord foresees.”