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France has urged Brussels to step up pressure on the UK over fishing rights as it warned of mounting frustration among its fishermen and the risk of renewed unrest following a blockade of Jersey this year.
Jean Castex, the French prime minister, urged European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to consider using other economic levers to push the UK into a fisheries compromise, in a letter sent this month and seen by the Financial Times.
The dispute between the UK and France concerns access to waters in the English Channel for fishermen based on the Normandy coast, who say they have worked in the area for years and now face unreasonable restrictions.
The two sides have failed to settle the methodology under which French ships can establish their rights to licences to continue using the waters, ahead of a September 30 deadline.
UK officials argued that the authorities were not seeking to be obstructive, but that French fishermen were not providing sufficiently high-quality data to support their claims.
French boats need to demonstrate that they have a history of operating in Jersey waters between 2017 and 2020 in order to qualify for fishing licences under the terms of the fishing deal that formed part of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement concluded in December 2020.
Paris also accused Jersey of imposing “new technical measures” on French boats that in effect excluded them from fishing. Jersey said the measures were designed to ensure the sustainability of the island’s fishing grounds.
This May, the UK dispatched Royal Navy vessels to patrol the waters off Jersey as more than 50 French fishing boats converged on the port of St Helier to protest over the island’s handling of fishing rights.
In a sign of how fishing rights can stir political emotions in France, the country’s minister for maritime affairs, Annick Girardin, threatened to cut off the electricity supply to Jersey which is supplied via undersea cable from France.
“I would regret it if we were to get there,” she said when questioned at the height of last May’s dispute by members of France’s National Assembly, but “we will do so if we have to.”
The politically combustible topic of fishing rights is particularly sensitive given the French presidential elections next April.
In his letter, Castex warned of the mounting weariness and frustration of his country’s fishermen, saying that the UK did not appear to be respecting the spirit in which the agreement was negotiated, “nor the letter in which it was written, nor the objectives for which it was signed”.
Gérard Romiti, the president of France’s National Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, said fishermen “feel they have been played in these discussions — they have gathered so much information and answered all the questions the authorities have asked, over a period of months and months”.
“And yet still we cannot see any progress in these technical talks, with the temporary authorisations due to end at the end of this month,” he added.
However Ian Gorst, Jersey’s minister for external relations, said he believed that “good progress” was being made towards issuing licences to vessels that qualified, and an announcement was expected shortly.
“As was the case in May this year, the government of Jersey fully respects the rights of French fishermen to protest peacefully on the subject of fishing licences issued under the new Trade and Cooperation Agreement,” he added.
The European Commission said it was urging the UK authorities to swiftly issue authorisations to fishermen, in particular with the temporary arrangements around the Channel Islands coming to an end on September 30.
“This will provide continuity for the fishing activities of the concerned EU fishermen,” it said. “We have reminded the UK authorities of implementing what was agreed. At present, we have provided all the relevant evidence to the UK authorities.”
A spokesperson for Defra, the UK agriculture department responsible for fisheries, said it was aware of planned protests by French fishermen, but the UK was taking a “consistent, evidence-based approach” to licensing EU vessels in UK waters.
“Jersey and Guernsey have also shown flexibility by allowing continued access for EU vessels whilst evidence is gathered and licensing decisions are taken. We are continuing to engage with the EU Commission and French government and we expect to be able to communicate decisions on further licenses in the near future,” they added.
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