‘For over 40 years British and French fishermen have been working side by side. Brexit will change all that’

After feeling forced to take French nationality following the 2016 Brexit vote, Brittany-based English film maker Simon Coss and his French friend and co-director hitch a ride on a Breton fishing boat and head for Cornwall to find out why so many UK fishermen voted Leave.

'For over 40 years British and French fishermen have been working side by side. Brexit will change all that'
A still from the film Wait&See, about the impact of Brexit on the British and French fishing industries

My name’s Simon and I’m French. It was never the plan, but on June 23rd 2016, the country where I was born decided to leave the European Union. That meant I’d lose my European citizenship and with it the automatic right to live here with my wife and kids.

I didn't feel I had any other option. I had no confidence whatsoever that the UK government would look out for me. Like countless others of the million or so UK nationals who've lived elsewhere in the EU for more than 15 years, it hadn't even let me vote in the Brexit referendum. So at the end of 2017 I received my first French passport.


It felt like Brexit was trying to rip me in half. I talked a lot about it with my friend Antoine Tracou, a film-maker like me and he suggested we make a film together about the real, human links between people living on both sides of the English Channel and how Brexit could affect them.

But which film? What is it that both unites and divides the United Kingdom and Brittany? The sea of course. So we hitched a ride on a fishing boat in the port of Guilvinec in Finistère, south Brittany and headed across the English Channel to Newlyn, in Cornwall, UK.

Brittany is one of France’s major fishing regions. Boats based in ports here spend a huge amount of time catching fish in UK waters. Without this access many could go out of business. Across the Channel, UK fishermen voted massively to leave the EU, furious at European rules that allow foreign boats to catch more fish than they can in their own seas.

But, in a perfect Brexit paradox, around 80 percent of catches landed by UK boats end up on French or Spanish dinner tables.

Antoine and I chose to concentrate on the fishing communities in Gulivinec and Newlyn. Boats from both ports spend much of their time fishing in the same dangerous seas, between Cornwall and Brittany.

These are people who do the same jobs. They have the same fears, the same hopes, the same destinies. For over forty years they have been working side by side under the same shared rules. Brexit would change all that. We wanted to find out how.

We set out to meet, talk and above all listen to people on both sides of the channel. We didn't want to point fingers or judge. There seemed to be more than enough of that kind of thing going on elsewhere.

French co-director Antoine Tracou. Photo Simon Coss

So over a year in 2018, we did just that. We spent two weeks at sea and countless hours on quaysides, in cafés, fishing companies and fish markets on both sides of the channel just chatting, listening, getting to know people.

It was a hugely enriching experience and we were welcomed warmly and sincerely wherever we went. It quickly became clear to us that there's nothing more like a Breton fisherman than a Cornish fisherman.

Although fishing remains a very masculine world, we also met two deeply inspiring women during our travels – Soazig Palmer Le Gall in Guilvinec and Elizabeth Stevenson in Newlyn. Both manage fishing fleets of a dozen boats and are hugely important figures in their local economies and communities.

Our time with Dave Stevens, the burly, generous, straight-talking Cornish skipper who welcomed us aboard his trawler the Crystal Sea for eight days, helped us understand why so many UK fishermen like him voted to leave the EU. Looked at from Dave's point of view, EU rules that allow non-UK boats to catch more fish in UK waters than he can, certainly seem unfair.

Where things got more complicated was around the question of who's responsible for that state of affairs, London or Brussels?

Dave is convinced that the UK has been continually out-manoeuvred in fishing talks in Brussels by its more wily EU counterparts. Elizabeth Stevenson saw things differently. She told us fishing, which represents around 0.5 percent of the UK's GDP, has always been used as a bargaining chip by London to get concessions in other areas.

In one memorable discussion she remembered how she had once been to see a UK fisheries minister to complain about her industry's woes only to be told, “fishing is less important than biscuits and lawn-mowers.”

We also found in Newlyn that people, like Elizabeth, who have to consider where catches will be sold after they have been landed tended to be against Brexit. The EU remains by far their biggest market.

Soazig Palmer Le Gall and Dave Stevens. Photo Antoine Tracou

One of the things that Antoine and I are most proud of was that we managed to bring people from Newlyn and Guilvinec together. When we were aboard the Crystal Sea, we invited Dave to meet and talk with Soazig, the French fleet manager. He gamely agreed and at the end of 2018 he came to France for the first time in his life.

His warm, frank, respectful meeting and discussions with Soazig end the film. What struck both Antoine and I afterwards was that Soazig and Dave pretty much agreed on everything when it came to the EU’s failings. Their only real difference came over how to deal with them. To change things is it better to stay or leave?

Since the film was released, Elizabeth has also asked to get in touch with Soazig.

Our journeys back and forth across the Channel confirmed one thing to both Antoine and me. If Brexit is first and foremost a British affair, we’d be making a huge mistake if we thought it had no bearing on this side of the Channel.

Europe’s in a bad place. Not the people's Europe. I believe more strongly than ever in European unity, in the power of bringing people together. That's what allowed Dave and Soazig to find common ground.

But the European Union, with its opaque, distant and autocratic institutions must change, or it will disappear.

We need more democracy, more hope.

We need to talk.

Simon Coss. Photo: Antoine Tracou

Wait&Sea was first broadcast on French television channel France 3 Bretagne on 8 April 2019. It is 52 minutes long and was co-produced by France 3 Bretagne and Aligal Production, with support from the CNC, the region of Brittany, the Procirep and the Angoa.

Simon and Antoine are now putting on a series of screenings of the film – if you would like to arrange a screening for your local area, contact them here in the screening/projection section.


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INTERVIEW: ‘We must make it easier for non-EU citizens to move around Europe’

The European Union needs to urgently allow non-EU citizens to be able to move more freely to another EU country, the MEP leading the talks on changes to residency laws says. He tells Claudia Delpero why current rules mean Europe is losing out to the US.

INTERVIEW: 'We must make it easier for non-EU citizens to move around Europe'

“Even under Donald Trump, the US was more attractive for international talent than the EU is,” says Damian Boeselager, a German Member of the European Parliament (MEP).

Boeselager, a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance group is leading the campaign at the European parliament to bring about a rule change that would effectively make it easier for non-EU citizens to move to another EU country.

“The EU has a huge benefit of a large labour market having freedom of movement for EU citizens,” he says.

“But the truth is that Europe needs labour migration in all areas and all skill levels and therefore, if we want to be more attractive, we should make it easier (for non-EU citizens) to move from one member state to the next.

“If you are fired in New York, you can move to San Francisco and Miami. So… if third-country nationals choose to relocate to Europe, they should have a similar freedom, they should see a single market and not 27 ones,” he said.

The European Parliament recently voted to simplify rules for non-EU nationals to allow them to acquire EU long-term residence status and make it easier to move to other EU countries.

Under a little known EU-law third-country nationals can in theory acquire EU-wide long-term residence if they have lived ‘legally’ in an EU country for at least five years. 

They also must not have been away for more than 6 consecutive months and 10 months over the entire period (the rules are different for Brits covered by Withdrawal agreement). In addition, they have to prove to have “stable and regular economic resources”, health insurance and can be required to meet “integration conditions”, such as passing a test on the national language or culture.

The status, which was created to “facilitate the integration” of non-EU citizens who have been living in the EU for a long time, ensures equal treatment in the country that grants it and, on paper, some free movement rights.

However in practice, this law has not worked as planned

Specific rules on residency are applied in each EU country. Most countries require employers to prove they could not find candidates in the local market before granting a permit to a non-EU citizen, regardless of their status. And as well as that most applicants are simply unaware the EU status exists and the rights that come with it.

Free movement for third country nationals is just “an illusion,” says Boeselager.

READ ALSO: What is the EU’s plan to make freedom of movement easier for non-EU nationals?

“The EU does not give out a status. It is always the national governments which have the competence to give out visas or grant asylum, and even the EU long-term residence status is not an EU status, it is a national status regulated under EU law,” Boeselager says.

The MEP says that the European parliament will not change this, but that it will seek to get closer to freedom of movement by adjusting the criteria for applications “so that can you have the long-term residence status in the second member state immediately if you already have it in the first.”

“So, if you get the German card of EU long-term residence, which is basically a German visa, you could go to France and say ‘I have already fulfilled the requirements under the EU long-term residence in Germany, please give me the status in France immediately’… I call it portability of status,” he says.

A change to the rules would benefit UK citizens who lost free movement rights in the EU due to Brexit.

“The fact that the British could potentially benefit from this makes me super happy, but in the end the law is nationality-blind and all third country nationals will benefit and I am super convinced this is the right thing to do,” Boeselager said.

Resistance from EU governments

The European Parliament also want to bring about another change that would make it easier for third-country nationals to move to another EU country.

MEPs recently decided the period of legal residence to obtain EU long-term residence should be cut from five to three years and that it should be possible to combine periods of legal residence in different EU member states, instead of resetting the clock at each move.

Time spent for studying or vocational training, seasonal work, temporary protection (the scheme that applies to Ukrainian refugees), which currently does not count, should be included in the calculation too.

All these rules will have to be agreed by the EU Council, which brings together representatives of EU governments.

And getting all EU member states to agree to the changes being put forward by Boeselager and fellow MEPs may prove difficult.

According to a recent questionnaire circulated by Sweden, the current holder of the EU Presidency, several of the EU parliament’s proposals, including the possibility to cumulate periods of residence in different member states, are viewed negatively by certain member states due to difficulties to check continuous stays and absences.

“The issue with member states is that they don’t trust each other, at least when it comes to the processing of documents,” Boeselager says.

“The second point is that on the Council side we negotiate with the ministries of home affairs, the interior ministries. But this is not necessarily an interior ministry decision but rather an economics decision… and we might be losing out because of this focus on control and fraud that ministries of interior have, whereas we should focus on how the EU attracts talent,” he says.

Boeselager warns that “nine out of 10 companies across Europe tell us they lack labour and over the next 30 years we will lose 60 million people from our workforce.”

EU ministers will have to come up with their common position, possibly by the end of June. Then there will be talks with the parliament. Boeselager hopes interior ministers “would not block too much” and the new law will be adopted before the European parliament elections of June 2024

If that doesn’t happen negotiations and discussions will have to continue into the next legislative period and therefor face a long delay.

“What’s important is that we start having a normal discussion about migration. Migration is such a toxic topic for so many, but the reality is that we do not have endless time to figure out how to become a more competitive and attractive Union and it’s important we get there, so we just need to make a better offer,” Boeselager said.

This article was produced in collaboration with Europe Street news.