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ANALYSIS: Why the new fishing row between France and UK could get nasty

The latest flare-up over the UK's refusal to grant fishing licences to French vessels could be solved in an afternoon with a bit of common sense. But with more than fish at stake, it could also take a more sinister turn, warns John Lichfield.

French fishermen blockade Jersey's port.
French fishermen blockade Jersey's port. Photo: Sameer Al Doumy/AFP

Whelk War One lasted a few days in May. Whelk War Two could be wider, longer and nastier.

France and Britain are quarrelling about fish again. They are already quarrelling about cross-Channel migration and Australian submarines.

There is a danger that the disputes will merge. There is a danger that Boris Johnson’s flailing and failing government, faced with fuel and food shortages, will seek to “busy giddy minds” (W. Shakespeare, Henry V) with French quarrels.

There is a danger that the French government – seven months from an election and angered by the submarine dispute – will relish a high-profile confrontation with Britain. French fishermen’s leaders – even pro-Macron members of the National Assembly – are talking about blockades of Calais and the Channel Tunnel.

What is going on? This is not just a re-run of the brief Jersey fish fight in May. It also involves boats from Boulogne and other northern French ports – much better placed to create a real crisis in Franco-British relations if they should sever or even partially block Britain’s cross-Channel trade with the continent.

This is not only a “whelk war” in Channel Islands waters but also a “sole war” and a “plaice war” along the Sussex, Kent and Essex coasts.

As part of the Brexit settlement last December, EU boats were allowed continued access to the UK exclusive economic zone up to 12 miles from the shoreline. Quotas were gradually to be reduced by around 25 percent over six years.

In the last dash to reach a settlement, Britain also agreed that a limited number of continental boats – mostly French and Belgian – should continue to fish (as they have for centuries) in some English and Channel Islands waters up to 6 miles from the coast.

Boats would be given licences if they could prove that they had fished in these waters in recent years. French ministers reassured their fishermen that this would be a “formality”.

READ ALSO ‘It is very very tense’: French fishermen angered by UK and Jersey licence refusal

Nine months later Britain is still denying licences to dozens of small French boats, under 12 meters long. The British and Jersey governments say the boats have failed to produce documentary proof of their fishing history. The French say they have handed over what they can but small boats are not equipped with the satellite tracking devices used by big boats.

French fishermen say they are being made hostage to other Franco-British or EU-British disputes about cross-Channel migrants or Northern Ireland. They say Britain is trying to claw back with excessive bureaucracy and ill-will part of its defeat on fisheries in the Brexit talks.

French fishermen protest in front of the port of Saint Helier off the British island of Jersey to draw attention to what they see as unfair restrictions on their ability to fish in UK waters after Brexit.

French fishermen protest in front of the Jersey port of Saint Helier on May 6th, 2021. Photo: Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP.

In May, a similar dispute led to a brief blockade of St Helier harbour in Jersey. Temporary licences were then issued by the Jersey government for French boats to carry on fishing within 6 miles of the island, mostly for whelks, scallops and other shellfish.

Jersey has issued new, permanent permits to 64 boats – rejecting requests for 105 others, either temporarily or permanently.

Some Norman and Breton fishermen say they regard this as a significant advance. Others are furious, calling on the French government to ban Jersey boats from landing fish in France (80 percent of their market) or demanding that Paris switch off the power cable from Normandy which provides most of Jersey’s electricity (but also that of Guernsey, with which France has no quarrel).

This time, however, there is also a second dispute – which could turn out to be far more serious. The British government has provided only some of the licences requested by fishermen from Northern French ports to cast their nets and lines within 6 miles of the English coast, mostly for flatfish like sole.

The approved licences have gone to big boats, which can prove their movements through satellite tracking records. The smaller boats have scrappier, written records – most of which have been rejected by the UK government, without much explanation.

In other words, Britain is allowing in the big and powerful boats but banning the small, family-run boats which do much less damage to the maritime environment.

Are some of the small French boat skippers lying about their fishing history? One or two maybe. But the number of boats applying is in line with the fishing pattern established for decades in both the eastern Channel and the waters around Jersey.

Guernsey has taken a more cooperative approach. Temporary licences will be rolled over until the end of the year when final decisions will be made. The Guernsey government says that its priority is continuing good relations with its giant French neighbour.

One of the most sensible comments on this dispute comes from Brian Murphy of the Transmanche Development Group (an initiative to improve local trade between southern England, the Channel Islands, Brittany and Normandy). He told the Jersey Evening Post that the quarrel could be resolved easily if fishermen on both sides got together. The problems, he said, are caused by bureaucratic-political point-scoring in St Helier or London or Paris or Brussels.

“Some of those Norman fishermen have clearly been fishing in Jersey waters but a lot of them have not been doing the paperwork and cannot prove that they have been fishing there regularly,” he said. “Many Jersey fishermen know who they are…They could just say, ‘This is Jean-Pierre, who has fished here for years.’”

That might be a little harder in the eastern Channel where relations between French and English fishermen are not so good. The point remains valid. With common-sense and goodwill this dispute – trivial in the grander scheme of things but not to those involved – could be cleared up in an afternoon.

With Boris Johnson in power and the UK tabloids baying for Brexit victories, where can we find a quota of commonsense and goodwill in Anglo-French relations?

Member comments

  1. Neither journalists nor politicians make it clear who is responsible for what on this dispute. Jersey has never been part of the UK. It was on the winning side in 1066, and is loyal to Elizabeth II in her capacity as successor to the Dukes of Normandy.
    John (Rosy’s Old Man)

  2. According to the Jersey Evening Post, Jersey has already issued twice as many licences to the French as they should have done and Jersey’s own fishermen are at risk of being crowded out.

  3. It seems to me that it’s OK (according to Mr Lichfield) for French customs to demand veterinary certificates etc. for ham sandwiches but not OK for the Jersey authorities to ask that French fishermen prove their “right” to fish in Jersey’s waters. A little EU bias there methinks

    1. More foot-stamping and huffing from French (fishermen, farmers etc – complete as appropriate) to get their way. Punish the UK government by exacerbating shortages for ordinary citizens half of whom voted against Brexit. Turning a blind eye to people smugglers whilst accepting payment intended to stem the flow.
      They are hardly acts of friendship are they? It is however par for the course.

  4. Tot for tat and triumphalism may be satisfying and give warm feelings, but in the long run can lead to a situation that nobody wanted. It is easier to break up relationships than to build up good ones. “Trust comes on foot but leaves on horseback”. Unfortunately mr. Johnson has not built up a good reputation for veracity, and that is going to make a lot of things difficult in the foreign affairs for the UK, not just here in Europe. So many UK citizens living in France, and other non-French nationals, is an example of what the good relationship between European countries has delivered. It would be such a pity if that hospitality was compromised.

  5. The latest threat of cutting electricity supplies is a green light for Russia to cut gas supplies the moment the EU does something the Kremlin doesn’t like. It is not only British consumers who will suffer because the U.K. is a relay point for electricity supplies to Ireland. Nice work.

  6. Dear John (Rosy), I think you are muddying the waters here. Jersey is a crown dependency and so its foreign policy is that of the UK – it is covered by the UK-EU treaty. Westminster cannot hide behind a supposed independence of Jersey. If Jersey was really idependent it would have to negotiate its own brexit treaty, which it clearly didn’t.

  7. We need only to read Lord Frost’s preposterous account of the Northern Ireland problem, at the Conservative Party conference yesterday, to realise that the Johnson government will continue to antagonise the EU wherever possible in order to play to the xenophobia of the CP membership, and its core voters and media supporters. And fishing was always going to be a key test of brexit ‘take back control’, which clearly failed in the deal that was actually signed last December. As with NI, Johnson is quite prepared to ignore previous promises and agreements. Johnson has a long, documented history of lying and untrustworthyness, and his cabinet, picked for their brexit loyalty rather than ability, must follow suit. As an expat in France it is embarrassing to witness.

    1. Sums up perfectly, word for word, how I feel about it all. I’m glad I moved to France personally, I find the current administration and general state of the UK to be thoroughly depressing at the moment. The worst thing about it all is that, much like in 2016, despite actual evidence to the contrary – enough people back home are willing to believe these buffoons that things are not completely falling apart as a result of catastrophic, incompetent government and Brexit which benefits nobody particularly. There are crises with fuel, energy, supply and labour, looming inflation and a total absence of the supposed upsides of the whole thing – such as the fabled trade deals with the US and others. Instead they engage in petty spats like this, and impose childish tit for tat restrictions (remember amber plus, specially created for France in the summer?) which actually affect people’s lives. There is not a shred of honesty or decency within that cabinet, and yet I feel very confident that if there were an election tomorrow, they’d still win comfortably.

      1. So, there’s no energy crisis in Europe, no shortage of HGV drivers and inflation isn’t higher than in the UK ? I suppose you also think UK growth isn’t the highest in the G7 and unemployment isn’t twice as high in France as in the UK. Looks like you left something behind when you crossed the Channel.

        1. Well alan stuart the disputes this conservative Government has caused by Bluster, selfishness & nothing for the British Public are just the tip of the iceberg.
          They have not respected the working person for several years and Brexit will not affect them as they already have enough money to live a life of luxury.
          The American Trump era wanted to break the EU apart but now the new administration does not (submarines aside Thats Business)
          With the no deal from America the UK was left in the cold with just a friendly handshake, and an aggravated EU – All the disruptions in the UK directly lead to the poor handling of economy by the rich conservatives, they forgot 20 plus years of joint operations within the EU leads to your companies and workforce being spread over the whole of the EU, Marks and Spencer being hit big time when their shops in EU had to close because supplies from their UK dept dried up due mainly to the boarder fiasco. None of the Conservative promises for Brexit success have occurred and will not occur in the near future

        2. Yes!! its the terrible British politics, I worked for many years in the political system and none of it was great, not saying EU or America are any better or worse I would just once like any politician to stand up particularly a Conservative and apologise for the Mistakes being made and there are quite a few. The British people were told sovereignty would be a big part of making Britain great again but we are now without an Empire (The Lion became a Bulldog) and already we are looking to America for help as we amass bigger depts that we ever have before and that is scary

        3. done the research – This is one of many smoke screens by Johnson while he and his cabinet shape British policies out of parliamentary discussion, He is fast becoming the author of many policies without governmental approval, even the speaker of the house of commons has spoken sharply to the Chancellor for breaking budget rules (the last Chancellor to do this was sacked and put on the back benches) but He’s still there.
          Alan Stuart when have you work for politicians? (if you have I bow to your Knowledge) but if your source is the press and News channels, these in the UK are all owed by Rich and powerful people who don’t really take enough care to report completely freely and shade their governmental friends (I saw it first hand while working for political figures)

    1. I imagine that the first thing would happen is that 5 million EDF customers in the UK would switch supplier , the UK Govt would kick EDF off the nuclear programme they’re involved in and EDF would likely go bust ( not a good look given it’s wholly owned by the French Government.) I also imagine all fishing licenses already approved would be cancelled. Alternatively, the French could start behaving like a rational Government and listen to what the EU is telling them.

      1. EDF go bust? That’s as likely as the court jester and Frosty the snowman knowing how to talk to your business sector. Just pull the plug and to hell with the consequences.

          1. They don’t issue enough licenses and their banks have come under the EU laws so I’ve moved mine further a field.

  8. Hmm – did the Brexit agreement have a clause in it that says the amount of fish the EU would be allowed to take would reduce year on year?
    In response the French Government has made great inroads in reducing the size of the french fishing fleet ? (not)
    they have also made great inroads in supplying retraining the fishermen who are going to loose their jobs? (not)
    Macron has made lots of noise – but has done nothing practical to help the fishermen
    Now – the rest of the EU do not see this as their problem and will not back Macron.
    But to put the other side of the argument – both sides signed a terrible deal that was not good for anyone – so this has allowed the UK to bluster and ignore the issue
    My personal point of view is sensible people should sit round a table and negotiate a sensible trade deal

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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