France vows not to 'abandon' fishermen in UK dispute

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed France would "continue to fight" for fishermen barred from UK waters, escalating a war of words over the issue. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron insisted on Friday (Nov 19) that he would not "abandon" fishermen demanding post-Brexit licences for waters off the Channel island of Jersey, escalating a battle of words that could spiral into a trade war.

"We are going to continue to fight, we will not abandon our fishermen," Macron told journalists during a visit to northern France.

He called on the European Commission to step up its efforts to pressure Jersey, a British crown dependency, to honour what France says are the terms of the post-Brexit trade accord with the bloc.

"The Commission must protect us. It has to see this through, but it's moving too slowly, too weakly," Macron said, adding that "if the Commission doesn't play its part, France will do it."

"I refuse returning to a bilateral discussion," he added, because "this isn't a question for France and the British, but a question of respecting your word."

Asked for comment, an EU spokeswoman in Brussels acknowledged that despite some progress on license requests, "the process is still too slow."

She said the commission would request "an intensification of this process" as a "matter of urgency" as the first anniversary of the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement looms in December.

'All options'

Paris has already threatened to ban British boats from unloading their catches at French ports and to subject all British imports to inspections, severely crimping trade.

Officials have also warned that electricity supplies to Jersey, which relies on power from the French mainland, could be restricted or cost more.

At stake are dozens of licences sought by French fishermen who say Jersey has imposed onerous new requirements, including proof that boats were already plying Jersey waters for years before Britain's exit from the EU in January.

Many ships are struggling to comply, and accuse Jersey of deliberating trying to exclude them.

On top of outstanding requests, Jersey has granted only temporary licences while talks with France continue, but Paris insists these must be made permanent.

"In total it involves 150 to 200 licences. That remains our demand," France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune said, adding that "We are keeping all options on the table if a dialogue doesn't bear fruit."

'Time for action'

The comments came after French fishing representatives reacted furiously to a proposal to spend millions of euros to compensate the scrapping of boats no longer able to ply Jersey waters.

The offer was seen as preparing for capitulation in the fight with Britain, especially since fellow EU countries have largely remained silent on the fishing dispute.

"People are talking more about the Irish protocol (over the future Ireland/Northern Ireland border) than the fishing question," said Eric Maurice, a political analyst at the Robert Schuman Foundation in Brussels.

"Everyone realises in Brussels and in member states that the larger question is the respect of the Brexit accords by the British," he said, "and every knows very well that we're dealing with a partner who does not always honour his word."

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Paris could also be hoping to settle the fishing dispute in the few weeks that remain before it takes over the rotating presidency of the EU in January - when it will have to take charge of all post-Brexit disputes.

But French fishing representatives, as well as regional officials along the Channel coast, say they are losing patience.

In May, dozens of boats massed at the main port of Jersey to protest, prompting a standoff that saw both France and Britain to dispatch military vessels.

"The time for action has come," Jean-Luc Hall, director of the French fishing committee, told AFP.

"Fishermen are considering a new mobilisation in the coming days to defend their fair and legitimate demands," his committee said in a statement.

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