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Post at: Nov 26 2021

UK-France fishing Dispute

Recent Context

  • On 1st of November, 2021 Britain warned France it will take action if France does not withdraw “unreasonable” threats to impose trade measures in an increasingly acrimonious row over post-Brexit fishing rights.
  • Earlier In the last week of October, 2021, France seized a British boat from French waters, a move that was denounced by the UK, which also threatened to undertake retaliatory action.
  • A row between the UK and France has erupted over post-Brexit fishing rights, with France saying that it could stop British boats from landing if the dispute wasn’t resolved.

Issue behind the dispute 

  • The wider issue here is the licences now required under the new Brexit arrangements. French fishermen complain that many of their applications for these licences have been rejected. 
  • The French government has threatened to subject British fishing companies to obfuscating bureaucracy, perhaps to bar British fishing vessels from French ports, and even to cut off the power supply to the Channel Islands. 
  • The British government, meanwhile, has threatened retaliatory measures. It has put Royal Navy vessels on standby in case French fishermen try to blockade those islands. Discussions to solve the problem have seemingly got nowhere.

Long History of Dispute 

  • These events follow earlier protests and stand-offs during Brexit negotiations – but they also have a longer history. 
  • The most obvious comparison might be to the “cold wars” of the 1950s and 1970s, when Britain’s role was reversed. Back then, Iceland ended a previous agreement with Britain and excluded British fishermen from Icelandic territorial waters.
  • Yet conflicts about fishing date back even further than that. 
  • In the early 1600s, for example, the Dutch republic possessed the biggest fishing fleet in Europe. 
  • But the interests of Britain’s rulers were more economic than ecological. They wanted a slice of the action and to challenge Dutch dominance. 
  • The first Stuart monarch who ruled over all of the British kingdoms, James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England, Wales, and Ireland), and his son Charles I, tried to impose new licences and taxes on Dutch fishing vessels, but the efforts of the Royal Navy – at that time under-funded, ill-equipped, and inefficient – to enforce this policy bordered on the farcical. 
  • The nippier Dutch ships literally sailed rings around their British pursuers.

The ‘closed sea’

  • Later in that century the British and Dutch fought three wars for commercial and maritime supremacy. 
  • These policies on fishing were thus part of a wider argument then raging about maritime sovereignty. It was a debate that became foundational for modern international law.
  • The dispute started with the Dutch lawyer and diplomat Hugo Grotius, who wrote that nobody could control the sea or prevent others from fishing and trading. Grotius’s book, Mare Liberum (the free sea), was aimed at the Portuguese empire, which was trying to keep the Dutch from trading in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, his ideas also went down badly in Britain.

What has triggered the row now?

  • After a British boat seized by France from French waters, a move that was objected by the UK, which also threatened to undertake retaliatory action.
  • It is worth mentioning here that During the post-Brexit trade negotiations that were finalised days before the transition period ended on January 1, 2021, the fishing aspect was overlooked because “other aspects of trade are simply much more important for the economies of both the UK and the EU.”
  • At present, France is maintaining that Britain has not granted France enough licenses to operate in Britain’s water, while Britain is saying that it is issuing licenses to vessels that meet their criteria.
  • France also argues that that if the talks between the two countries did not make any progress, France will put sanctions including extra customs checks on British goods.
  • France now wants that all the provisions that are set out within the Trade and Cooperation Agreement are applied fully.

How were fishing rights shared before Brexit?

  • Fisheries in the EU – which included the UK until December 31, 2020 – are governed by the bloc’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
  • Under the CFP, fleets from every EU member state can fish in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of all the other members, meaning the part of the sea that stretches up to 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coast, excluding its territorial waters – which end at 12 nautical miles from the coast.
  • The EU as a bloc, and not individual countries, decides every December the volume of fish from each species that can be caught from the combined EEZs of its members, which are together considered a common resource. Fishing rights are then divided as per national quotas.
  • As long as the UK remained a part of the EU, the CFP has allowed fleets from the rest of the bloc to trawl in British waters, which are considered to be very rich.

What are the new rules on fishing

  • EU boats will continue to fish in UK waters for some years to come
  • But UK fishing boats will get a greater share of the fish from UK waters
  • That shift in the share will be phased in between 2021 and 2026, with most of the quota transferred in 2021
  • After that, there’ll be annual negotiations to decide how the catch is shared out between the UK and EU
  • The UK would have the right to completely exclude EU boats after 2026
  • But the EU could respond with taxes on exports of British fish to the EU or by denying UK boats access to EU waters

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