Post-Brexit UK’s legal fishing zone is subject of tensions and controversies in Europe
Written by Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Tensions between France and the UK are on the rise. Quite unexpectedly, both countries have started a serious diplomatic crisis in recent weeks over disputes about the limits of their respective legal fishing zones. The UK’s departure from the European Union has left a legal vacuum on this matters, harming several European fishing schemes in British waters. In retaliation, France began to claim that London no longer has the right to its maintain fishing activities along the coast of the Union and has already confiscated several British fishing vessels. Now, the UK is demanding a more lenient and diplomatic posture from Paris, promising severe responses to the seizure of ships. The crisis gradually increases with the recent disagreements around the AUKUS and the tendency is for the situation to worsen even more.
Fishing has always been an important and controversial issue in the European space. Particularly with regard to bilateral relations between France and the UK, these difficulties are even clearer. Historically, there are many discussions about the delimitation of fishing space, with no consensus on the legality of fishing outside the maritime space of each country. While the UK was part of the EU, the case was partially resolved as there was free movement of vessels along the entire European coast. However, after Brexit the problems reappeared.
The UK fishing industry has been pushing to prevent other countries from maintaining operations on the British coast. France is the state that most maintains such activities in the region, with fishing vessels circulating in territories such as the islands of Jersey and Guernsey. Recently, London began to ban this circulation, denying authorization to French ships requesting access to British waters. The search for total control of fishing in the British maritime territory has been a strong mark of companies in this sector. Fishermen were a strong social group in support of Brexit and are now continuing this nationalism.
In contrast, France began to adopt a similar stance, becoming intolerant of the British presence. In the last week of October, French authorities seized some British ships that were fishing in the Le Havre region in the northwest of the country. According to the authorities, the ships were not licensed to operate at that zone and were therefore acting illegally – which the government and British companies vehemently deny. In fact, regardless of a legal issue, this is indeed a reprisal: now, France is also investing in “fishing nationalism” as a way to pressure the UK in favor of Europe.
As a result, relations have deteriorated, having impacts on several other issues, such as the case, for example, of Calais’ migrants. As a strategic route through the English Channel, the Port of Calais is very important for immigrants from different regions, such as Africa and the Middle East, who seek France or the UK as a destination. With the current absence of British interest in receiving migrants, both countries signed a series of agreements a few years ago by which London pledged to pay an amount of around 63 million euros in aid to Paris so that the French authorities receive the migrants from Calais who wanted to go to the UK. The deadline to settle the payment was July 2021 and the UK continues to delay the delivery of the amount. Adding debt defaults to the fishing crisis, the situation has significantly deteriorated and it has been possible to observe a leniency on the part of the French authorities, which are not preventing Calais migrants from trying to enter the UK illegally.
There is still a growing crisis in the energy issue. British cities in the English Channel are supplied with energy by France and Paris has repeatedly threatened to cut supplies if the UK does not change its current licensing policy for French fishing vessels. The French government also promises to increase the commercial encirclement, adopting tariff and sanitary measures that prevent the entry of British goods in French ports. On Monday, after a round of talks between the two countries’ authorities, Paris agreed to postpone retaliatory measures, but, on the other hand, the war of words escalated, with the UK sending an ultimatum to France to retreat from the threats and release the seized vessels. On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson met to discuss the case, but no agreement was reached.
In fact, there is no ”right” side to this dispute. The EU has been denounced for years for setting unclear conditions for the legality of fishing with non-European countries. These conditions in general are marked by a strong environmental and social disregard, maximizing the fishing power of European states and negatively impacting the marine environment and food security of the countries that receive the British ships. On the other hand, internally there are strict rules for controlling fishing, which prioritize sustainability in the European space. After the Brexit, the UK has been treated as a non-European country in every way, including fishing. France wants to keep a large number of fishing vessels in the British sea as its priority is to meet European food and commercial needs. On the other hand, the UK continues to act as a European state in trying to protect its social and environmental interests at the expense of other countries, which is why it wants to limit the number of French ships on its coast, while maintaining fishing vessels along the the EU coast.
Both sides lose in this dispute. European maritime space is insufficient to guarantee the food and commercial security of the fishing industry of each country if activities are limited to the maritime miles of each state. Sharing maritime space is a fundamental step for all states to meet their needs. However, the current moment favors tensions between France and the UK. Paris was certainly the western country most harmed by the recent creation of the AUKUS, the new military alliance between the US, UK and Australia. With this alliance, Australia, which had billionaire business with France in the military industry – mainly naval sector -, was forced to cancel several businesses and prioritize the partnership with Washington and London. The French government has increased its antipathy towards the plans of the American and British governments and there is now an inappropriate setting for relations between these countries. Certainly, at another time, the fishing crisis would have already been partially resolved through quick negotiations, considering that both sides are harmed by the current situation, but in the midst of the tensions created by the AUKUS, France is interested in harming the UK as much as possible.
It is difficult to speculate about the future scenario in the short term, but if both countries do not reach a definitive agreement, it is possible that there will be a crisis in the supply of fish. However, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, it is possible to see the emergence of a major polarization in the Western world, with the UK seeking American support instead of having good relations with European nations and Paris consolidating itself as the EU’s leading power.
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