A British fishing boat seized by France amid the row over post-Brexit licences has been wrongly detained, its owners have claimed.
Scallop trawler Cornelis Gert Jan was fishing in Baie de la Seine off the French coast on Wednesday when it was stopped by police who claimed it was fishing illegally, before forcing it into the port of Le Havre where it is now moored under guard. Prosecutors have since threatened the captain with a £63,000 fine.
But Andrew Brown, director of Scottish firm MacDuff Shellfish which owns the boat, insists it was fishing legally and is being used as a ‘pawn’ by irate French ministers who are demanding the UK grants more licences for their boats to enter its waters.
‘MacDuff’s fishing activity is entirely legal,’ Brown said. ‘I suspect this is politically motivated.’
He added: ‘We are looking to the UK government to defend the rights of the UK fishing fleet and ensure that the fishing rights provided under the Brexit Fishing agreement are fully respected by the EU.’
The UK government says it is ‘urgently’ investigating.
Clement Beaune, France’s Europe minister, appeared on TV shortly after the boat was seized to ratchet up tensions – declaring that ‘we need to speak the language of force’ to Britain because it is ‘the only thing this government understands’.
Seizing the Cornelis is just the latest move by France in an ongoing row with the UK over who has rights to fishing grounds in the Channel now Britain has left the EU.
Before Brexit, French fishermen had free reign to fish in UK waters under EU law and only had to apply to their own government for a licence that allowed them to do it.
France has detained British scallop trawler Cornelis Gert Jan in the port at Le Havre after accusing it of illegally fishing in French waters, but it owners insist it was fishing legally
A fisherman is pictured on board the British scallop trawler that has been detained in Le Havre. The company which owns the boat says the crew are in ‘good spirits’ while the captain has been taken for questioning
A French police vessel patrols around the Cornelis Gert Jan after it was seized and taken to the port in Le Havre on Wednesday
Two British boats were stopped by French police while fishing in Baie de la Seine on Wednesday. The captain of one was fined and let go after refusing to let officers board, but the second was detained and taken to Le Havre for allegedly fishing without a licence
Tracking data shows the British vessel departed from Shoreham-by-Sea for Baie de la Seine and was trawling before being stopped and diverted to Le Havre
What’s behind the Franco-British fishing row?
France and Britain are at loggerheads over fishing rights in the Channel, with a row over the politically sensitive industry causing a major diplomatic flare up.
What has caused the dispute?
In a word, Brexit.
Britain’s departure from the European Union, which came into force on January 1, ripped up agreements in place to manage fish stocks in waters around the UK and the Channel Islands.
Until Brexit, EU members including Britain had treaties and a joint fisheries policy that allocated quotas of different stocks to each nation’s fishing fleet.
As part of these agreements, hundreds of EU vessels, mostly French ones, were allowed access to Britain’s fish-rich territorial waters between six and 12 miles from the coast.
So what changed?
Fishing was one of the most difficult issues to solve in the tense Brexit negotiations, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promising to regain ‘full control’ of British waters.
In the end, the two sides agreed a compromise last December that will see EU boats gradually relinquish 25 percent of their current quotas over a five-and-a-half year transition period.
After this, there will be annual negotiations on the amount of fish EU vessels can take from British waters.
Under the agreement, EU fishermen wishing to access British seas had to apply for new licences.
The licences were for more distant waters considered Britain’s exclusive economic zone (12-200 nautical miles from the coast), and its closer territorial waters (6-12 nautical miles from the coast).
Fishermen needed to prove a track record of working there between 2012-2016.
And the Channel Islands?
They are a separate, but significant part of the picture.
Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands, which are self-governing.
They are not part of the United Kingdom but recognise Queen Elizabeth as their head of state and depend on Britain for defence and foreign relations.
Brexit also meant the end of the Granville Bay fishing treaty between France and Jersey, which had set rules and quotas for fishing in the waters around the island.
Under the new rules, French fishermen were required to apply for new licences, which would be granted if they could prove they had worked previously in Jersey waters.
Is the row about the licencing process?
Britain has accepted nearly all requests – around 1,700 – from EU boats to access its exclusive economic zone.
The tension is over licences for the territorial waters.
London has issued 100 licences to French boats for these waters close to its shore, while 75 requests are still pending, according to French figures from early October.
For Jersey, 111 permanent licences and 31 provisional licences have been issued, while 75 boats have been rejected, French figures show.
Rejected French fishermen say they are being unfairly restricted due to red tape and bureaucracy.
They say small boats lack the GPS equipment required to prove they previously worked there, while others complain that they are having difficulty obtaining licences for new vessels that replaced older models.
Have there been protests?
Yes. French fishermen sailed to the main port on Jersey in June to demonstrate, prompting Britain to send two naval patrol boats to the area.
On Wednesday, the French government announced that it would step up customs and sanitary controls on trade with Britain and ban British seafood from French ports.
The measures are set to come into effect next Tuesday.
France has also raised the possibility of reducing electricity exports to Jersey, or blocking negotiations between London and the EU on sensitive topics such as trade in financial services.
In private, some French officials point out that Britain is also dependent on Paris to prevent migrants and asylum seekers illegally crossing the Channel to England.
What will happen now?
French officials say that since they started pressuring Britain and Jersey publicly over the last few months more licences have been issued.
France is also trying to rally the rest of the European Union to its side.
Ten out of the other 26 members of the EU signed up to a statement condemning Britain’s ‘incomplete and inappropriate’ response on fishing.
Experts see little prospect for British-French ties to improve.
With elections due in France next April, President Emmanuel Macron is keen to keep the politically powerful and vocal fishing communities on side.
Reporting by AFP news agency.
But earlier this year a new regime laid out in the Brexit Agreement came into force, which means French fishermen now need to apply to the UK for a licence.
Under the wording of the agreement, all vessels that fished in UK waters ‘for at least four years between 2012 and 2016’ should be granted the same level of access until at least 2026, when it will be up to the UK and France to negotiate new deals.
The UK is asking French boats to provide tracking and fishing quota data for those years to qualify for a permit. The French have protested, saying smaller vessels do not collect this data and are being unfairly punished. The Brexit Agreement makes no mention of such data, they argue.
MailOnline understands that UK vessels wanting to fish in EU waters are placed on a list by British authorities which is then sent to Brussels for approval. To be included on the list, boats are required to provide similar proof to that imposed on the French trawlers.
The issue of fishing licences – one of the key sticking points in getting a Brexit deal signed – has proved an incendiary one even after pen was put to paper, with French ministers ramping up the rhetoric on Thursday after the boat was seized
Annick Girardin, seas minister, told French radio listeners: ‘This is not a war, but it is a fight.’
MacDuff Shellfish told The Herald that the crew are in ‘good spirits’ and are being held aboard the vessel in Le Havre until the legal issues are worked out.
The captain has gone ashore to answer questions from the authorities and has been provided with a lawyer, they added.
The French seas ministry said potential punishments for the vessel include ‘confiscation of catch and immobilisation of the vessel pending payment’.
‘The captain of the vessel [also] risks criminal charges, under the control of the judicial authority,’ the ministry added.
French police did stop a second British boat, which has not been identified, and fined the captain for initially refusing police permission to board. The boat was eventually let go because it was properly licenced, the French seas ministry said.
British environment minister George Eustice told Parliament the seizure of the boat is being ‘urgently’ looked into, but ruled out any ‘tit for tat’ retaliation.
‘UK vessels with their licence to fish in EU waters should be allowed to do so uninterrupted,’ he said.
‘It is also the case that the UK will continue to implement and enforce things in good faith in our EEZ as well.
‘We are not going to get into a retaliatory, tit for tat on this kind of thing.
‘It is important I think that everybody remains calm.’
He also described French threats to block British fishermen from landing catches at their ports as ‘disappointing’, ‘disproportionate’ and ‘[not] compatible with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement or wider international law.’
‘If carried through [they] will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response,’ he added.
But Mr Beaune showed little room for compromise as he spoke to France’s CNews on Thursday, saying: ‘Not all French ports will be accessible to British boats anymore.
‘Only a few, three or four probably… It will be a very significant limitation in the access to our ports for British boats. And we will have systematic border, veterinary and security controls for British boats.
‘We will show no tolerance, no indulgence. We have actually started tonight with security checks, it allowed us to board and search two British boats which did not comply with the rules so no tolerance, no indulgence.
‘And we will also carry out systematic controls for lorries carrying goods arriving or leaving to the UK in Calais or elsewhere, not to cut ties and accesses but to be extremely strict with our verifications.
‘We cannot be in a climate of trust with a neighbour who does not abide by the rules.’
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the UK parliament, has granted an urgent question in the House of Commons today to address the fishing dispute.
Meanwhile Annick Girardin, the French seas minister who has been leading French efforts to secure more licences, told RTL radio: ‘It is not a war, but it is a fight.
‘We are going to ask the European Commission to tell the United Kingdom that it is not respecting its [Brexit] agreement and therefore that retaliatory measures can be put in place.
‘The French and the fishermen have rights. An agreement was signed. We must enforce this agreement.
‘We have fishing rights, we must defend them and we will defend them.’
Barry Deas, from the the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, told the BBC: ‘It may be normal enforcement action but against the background of the threatening noises coming from the French Government yesterday, it’s very concerning.
‘France seems determined to escalate this issue about licenses. I suppose we have to wonder why.
‘There’s a presidential election coming up in France and all the signs are that the rhetoric has been ramped up ahead of that on the fishing issue.
‘I think what the UK government is doing is completely in line with the trade and cooperation agreement, not that that’s an agreement that we like but there it is, it’s in place.
‘This is something that should be settled round the table and my understanding is that those talks have been going on but it’s this escalation I think that has got a political dimension to it.
‘UK vessels landing into French ports is not massive. It’s a bit strange because the French fish in UK waters far more than we fish in their waters and therefore if we descend into a tit for tat relationship I think the French fleet are much more exposed.
‘I don’t think that’s a helpful way to go but it’s strange direction for the French to take which is why we conclude that this has all been politicised.’
On Wednesday, the French Government dramatically threatened to block British vessels from some ports next week if the dispute is not resolved.
Paris even went as far as suggesting it could restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands if no deal is reached.
No 10 said the threats do not seem to be compatible with ‘international law’ and vowed an ‘appropriate and calibrated response’ if Paris does not back down.
Since the UK left the economic orbit of the European Union at the start of the year, relations between London and Paris have become increasingly frayed.
France has been angered by a decision from the UK and Jersey last month to reject dozens of licences for French boats to fish in their waters, arguing it breaches the Brexit deal.
This map shows the extent of the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone where French vessels now require a licence to fish. Boats also require a licence to fish the waters around Jersey and Guernsey (bottom) but this is administered by the islands and not from Westminster
The French Government has dramatically warned it will block British vessels from some ports next week if the post-Brexit dispute over fishing licences is not resolved. Pictured: French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech on Wednesday in Paris
Downing Street vowed to retaliate against Paris if it goes ahead with the ‘disappointing and disproportionate’ threat to impose sanctions in an escalation of the row over fishing boats. Pictured: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, October 27
Jersey, which is only 14 miles off the French coast, is a British Crown dependency outside of the UK. As such, it has its own powers with regards to who is allowed to fish in its territorial waters.
It has granted licenses based on its interpretation of the UK-EU trade deal, and has accused France of acting disproportionately.
After weeks of negotiations, British authorities have issued more fishing licenses but that still only accounts for 50 per cent of what France believes it ‘is entitled to.’
If an agreement over the licenses is not struck by Tuesday, France said it will block British boats from some ports and tighten checks on vessels travelling between France and the UK.
The French ministers for Europe and for maritime affairs said in a joint statement Wednesday that if no agreement is reached by November 2, France will bar British fishing boats from designated ports and tighten customs, security and other controls on any British boats and trucks traveling between France and Britain.
And then in the coming weeks, France said that it ‘doesn’t exclude’ measures targeting energy supplies to Britain, the statement said.
Attal specified that meant the Channel Islands, which are closer to French shores than British ones and rely heavily on electricity supplied by the French grid.
A UK Government spokeswoman responded: ‘France’s threats are disappointing and disproportionate, and not what we would expect from a close ally and partner.
‘The measures beinge threatened do not appear to be compatible with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and wider international law, and, if carried through, will be met with an appropriate and calibrated response.’
She said that Britain will express its concerns both to the EU and the French Government, and argued that the UK has granted 98 percent of licence applications from European vessels.
But the dispute continues over 31 vessels which the UK did not approve licences for, arguing that they did not have supporting evidence for their applications.
Britain says the majority of the vessels were denied access because they failed to prove they had fished in the six-to-12-mile nautical zone in the years before the UK’s referendum on leaving the EU.
Attal, spokesman for the Macron administration, said on Wednesday that Britain’s conduct over fishing rights in British waters following Brexit had led to the French ‘losing patience’.
And he said that from next Tuesday there would be ‘systematic customs and sanitary inspections on imported products arriving in Channel ports’ including ‘a ban on disembarking seafood products as well as checks on lorries’.
France is one of Britain’s biggest export market for fish. In 2019, the trade accounted for £561.1 million, or 27.7 per cent of total exports.
Britain’s post-Brexit agreement with the EU states fishermen can continue to fish in British waters if they obtain a licence and prove that they previously were fishing there.
France is set to implement a go-slow strategy for customs checks on shipments bound for Britain ahead of Christmas as the row over post-Brexit fishing rights continues. Above: Trucks queuing to enter the port of Calais last year
But the French are now complaining that around 50 per cent of licences have not been issues.
‘Our wish is quite simply that the agreement that was reached is respected,’ Mr Attal said at a press conference in Paris on Wednesday.
‘When we sign an agreement, and that was the case in the context of Brexit, the agreement must be respected. Our patience is reaching its limits.’
He added: ‘Matters are clear, and we have said that we will not let the British wipe their feet on the Brexit agreement.’
Under the Brexit agreement, 175 French fishing vessels have the right to fish between six and 12 nautical miles off the British coast, but the UK has only delivered 100 licences.
Paris also says that only 105 licences to fish off Jersey have been delivered when French trawlermen had the right to 216.
Mr Attal said the new retaliatory measures would start on November 2.
He also said that measures related to electricity supplies to the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey could be issued ‘in the weeks after’.
Earlier this year, France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune warned that his country was ready to step up pressure on the UK using all means possible.
‘For example, you could imagine the Channel Islands, where the United Kingdom depends on us for its energy supply,’ said Mr Beane.
He did not expand further, but the warning echoed an earlier threat by French Fisheries Minister Annick Girardin who said in May that the fishing row could have an impact on ‘the power supply by undersea cable’ from France to Jersey.
Discussing the dispute last month, a spokesman for Britain’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said tit had a ‘reasonable’ approach to the issuing of licences.
He said: ‘The government has this year issued a large number of licences to EU vessels seeking to fish in our exclusive economic zone and our territorial sea.
‘Our approach has been reasonable and fully in line with our commitments in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.’