Fishing licenses: will France dare to initiate a dispute with the United Kingdom?

After months of tension, escalating rhetoric and the threat of a blockade, is the fishing dossier between France and the United Kingdom about to overflow? Friday December 10, the deadline, self-imposed by France, has passed.

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The government had asked the British to resolve the issue of the hundreds of pending fishing licenses. The latter did not comply. They refuse to recognize this date of Friday, which has, in fact, no legal value. “We are not going to issue licenses because they are trying to intimidate us, it is a question of principle”, retorts a senior British official. The latter is angry with Paris for threatening to cut off electricity to the island of Jersey, a gesture considered completely disproportionate – and of which the French government no longer speaks.

High symbolic value

And now ? Will Paris embark on the path of official litigation? The government was to leave time to reflect over the weekend to know what response to adopt. Several scenarios were envisaged, from the darkest to the most optimistic. If the UK were to stick to its hard stance, France could ask the European Commission “To announce that a dispute is initiated”, to use the words of the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune. On the other hand, a “Strong gesture”of the order of about sixty licenses granted to French fishermen, as well as a relaxation of the criteria imposed by the British – would be likely to deflate the crisis, it is estimated in Paris.

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The French position must be decided between Clément Beaune and the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, who is, according to a good connoisseur of the file, “On a line of firmness” with the United Kingdom. But Emmanuel Macron is also looking closely at this subject of high symbolic value, four months before the presidential election. “I really want to have a government [britannique] who simply wishes to work in good faith with us ”, said the head of state on Thursday. “We will not let go of our fishermen”, he had assured, on November 19, promising to receive them before Christmas.

For the tenant of the Elysée Palace, an ardent promoter of European integration, the credibility of the community institutions is at stake, challenged by the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. “The face of Brexit will be that of the fisherman”, is in the habit of repeating Clément Beaune.


Basically, however, France’s room for maneuver may be limited. The government cannot engage in legal litigation alone. Officially, the fishing files are filed by the European Commission, and it is therefore up to it to initiate any retaliatory measures, not in Paris.

However, Brussels has no desire to engage in escalation on this subject. The Commission spent Friday trying to defuse the bomb. His spokesperson refused to speak of Friday as a deadline.

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Seen from Brussels, the file is above all symbolic. “95% of the licenses requested obtained a positive response”, notes the Commission spokesperson. In addition, the standoff between London and Paris, which initially involved nearly 200 boats, now only concerns 104, according to the Department of the Sea. Guernsey recently awarded forty-three licenses, and Jersey has given them. new.

The disagreement stems from the ambivalences left in the Brexit deal. Boats able to prove that they were in UK waters between 2012 and 2016 may be licensed. But the evidence to be provided has not been clearly defined. For smaller vessels, less than twelve meters, which do not have GPS data, it is sometimes difficult to provide. The problem also concerns fishermen who have changed boats, who are not automatically recognized.

These discussions, which could have remained technical, have become a political symbol. At the risk of going one step further this weekend?

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Fishing licenses: will France dare to initiate a dispute with the United Kingdom?

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