French fishers plan to block freight to UK in Brexit licences dispute

By Jon Henley Europe correspondent
Lorries preparing to enter the Port of Calais to board ferries to Britain.
Lorries preparing to enter the Port of Calais to board ferries to Britain. Photograph: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

French fishers are set to take action within days, including blocking road and sea freight bound for the UK through Calais and other Channel ports, as a months-long dispute over licences to operate in British waters intensifies.

French media reported on Tuesday that with talks between the two governments and the European Commission over post-Brexit fishing rights seemingly deadlocked, angry fishers in northern France would decide on Thursday what steps to take.

France says the UK has unjustly denied permits to about 150 French boats, while Britain insists it is entitled to demand whatever evidence it chooses to show that French vessels have a track record of operating in the UK’s coastal waters.

Olivier Leprêtre, the president of the organisation that represents fishers’ interests in northern France, said crews from boats operating along the Atlantic coast, in the Channel and the North Sea, from Brest to Dunkirk, would take part.

There would be no wholesale blockade of French ports, Leprêtre told a meeting of fishers in Boulogne-sur-Mer. “We are aiming more to target exports, because we don’t want to harm the French economy,” he said. “We want to affect the UK’s economy. We will do this properly – and we will do it.”

Leprêtre added: “The poor British are already lacking some products since Brexit, and unfortunately they’re about to be lacking a few more … Britain wants access to the European market? They should give us the licences. We’ve been waiting 11 months.”

He said the aim of the actions would be to “insist that the European Commission takes its responsibilities seriously and ensures the Brexit deal is respected”, and also to “warn Boris Johnson that his fishers have access to the EU market, so we should have access to British waters”.

Fishers in Boulogne-sur-Mer told La Voix du Nord newspaper that the final details of the action would be worked out on Thursday, with the campaign due to start on Friday or possibly Monday. “All cross-Channel traffic and all freight [to the UK] will be blocked,” one fisher said.

French fishers have previously taken matters into their own hands in the dispute. They blocked trucks carrying fish from British waters to processing centres in France in April and subsequently blockaded St Helier harbour in Jersey in May.

France’s maritime minister, Annick Girardin, and the president, Emmanuel Macron, reassured French fishers on Sunday that they would not be abandoned, with Macron personally talking for 15 minutes to Leprêtre by telephone.

“He told me that under no circumstances would he let this matter of the missing permits drop, and that he would never give up on French fishers,” Leprêtre said on Sunday. “The fact that he called me personally I think shows how much importance he attaches to this.”

Girardin also said she would “continue the battle” with London. “We are fighting every day for these permits and we will not yield an inch. The British interpretation of our applications is unacceptable and is not a fair response to French goodwill.”

Girardin, who said roughly 80% of France’s permit applications had been resolved, had previously sparked concerns of a retreat by the government after announcing a budget of €40m-60m (£34m-51m) for eventual compensation claims and to help fishers who wanted to leave the sector set up new businesses.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, also said on Sunday the British were “engaging in exaggerated and exasperating nitpicking” over the permits, calling for “firm EU action” to ensure the Brexit accords were respected. The Europe minister, Clément Beaune, was in Brussels on Monday for meetings on the issue.


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