France and the UK are on the verge of a Brexit trade war

Article by Lea Schiller

During the last week of October, two British fishing vessels were investigated in France’s fishing waters during routine patrols. While one was only fined, the other was handed over to the French authorities; allegedly because it had been fishing without a license (Westendarp, 2021). This event came after weeks of tensions between France and the UK. Earlier in October, the UK refused to grant fishing permits for three quarters of French boats, which France claimed was in violation of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (Momtaz, 2021). As a response, France unveiled plans to introduce extra border controls on boats and trucks coming into the country from the UK. The two countries are in a diplomatic row over the fishing industry – but this industry only makes up a small part of each country’s economy, so why has it been the focus of so much contention?

Historic and Political Background

Fishing is historically seen as a symbolic industry, and in the past, workers in this industry have threatened to take matters into their own hands, should their government fail to protect them (Gallardo & Caulcutt, 2021). Consequently, the public pays attention to the demands of fishers; thus, when this industry is threatened, it is more likely to become front-page news than it is the case for other industries (Castle, 2020). This heightens the political relevance of the concerns of the fishing industry.

The political situation in both France and the UK exacerbates this effect. France will hold its presidential elections in April of next year. Current President Macron is often criticised by the right-wing opposition of overly prioritising the European Union, and in the months leading up to the election he is being closely scrutinised on whether he can protect the country’s workers. Giving in to the UK’s demands could compromise his chances of gaining votes ahead of the election. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, made promises of taking control of Britain’s waters to the fishing industry (Castle, 2020). Not delivering on this promise could loose him support as well (Castle, 2020).

Why a compromise is direly needed – and so hard to reach

Essentially, the situation is akin to a deadlock. The UK could cut the EU’s fishers off from its waters, but on the other side, the EU can cut the UK off from its internal market, and since British fishers export four fifths of their catch, this would be a considerable blow to their business (Castle, 2020). The European Commission has initiated talks that will bring officials from the European Commission, France and the UK to one table; an initiative that was direly needed. However, British officials have already expressed caution about the likelihood of success for this meeting (Hughes, Parker, Mallet & Khan, 2021). In times where tensions over the provisions for the Irish border in the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement have already complicated the situation at the Irish border and the economies of both the EU and the UK are just slowly starting to recover from the pandemic, adding more conflict is incredibly dangerous. A trade war, which is looking more and more likely, must be prevented.

Picture by Aleks Marinkovic published on Unsplash

References

Castle, S. (2020, October 28). The issue that might sink the Brexit trade talks: Fishing. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/28/world/europe/fishing-brexit-trade-deal.html

Gallardo, C. & Caulcutt, C. (2021, October 28). Fishing wars flare as Britain summons French ambassador. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/fishing-wars-france-uk/

Hughes, L., Parker, G., Mallet, V., & Khan, M. (2021, November 1). EU holds last-ditch talks to resolve UK-France fishing dispute. Financial Times. Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/56e3d3fb-2be9-46c5-9779-10cc2d099649

Momtaz, R. (2021, October 27). France retaliates against UK in fishing spat. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/france-announces-retaliatory-measures-on-u-k-over-fishing-rights/

Westendarp, L. (2021, October 28). France detains British boat amid fishing license row. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/france-detains-british-fishing-boat/