Britain Really Doesn't Rule the Waves

Despite the jokes on social media, Britain and France aren’t going to war. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered HMS Severn and HMS Tamar — two Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels — into the waters around the island of Jersey, it wasn’t with the intention of doing combat with the French over fishing licenses.

True, a French government minister had threatened to cut off power supplies to the British Crown Dependency, 95% of whose electricity comes via three underwater cables from France. And a flotilla of French fishing boats gathered in the Jersey port of St. Helier early Thursday morning, setting off flares, waving tricolore flags and displaying messages such as “En Colere” (angry). Conflicts have started over less.

But the power-cut threat was bluster and the fishing boats demonstrated peacefully. The British patrol ships are equipped with weapons appropriate for taking on small craft; they have crews of more than 40 sailors and anti-aircraft weaponry. Nonetheless, these aren’t the Royal Navy’s heavy guns and nobody thinks an Anglo-French dispute over fishing-boat licenses will be resolved by military posturing. That’s why countries hire diplomats.

Observers will note there are elections in the U.K. today — where voters are choosing mayors, local officials and lawmakers. Given the contentiousness of fisheries in the Brexit trade talks, it doesn’t hurt for Johnson to be seen defending Britain’s maritime interests as people head for the polling stations. For France, too, with a presidential election coming next year and the nationalist Marine Le Pen on the card, there’s political mileage for Emmanuel Macron in playing tough. 

That doesn’t mean this is all grandstanding. Fish matter. Years of Brexit antagonism have created a crisis in British relations with the European Union. The trade deal that ended the Brexit negotiations settled some of the big questions on how the U.K. and EU would do business with each other, but many details are still being worked out in real time. Fishing rights may seem a minor part of this but Europe could retaliate against any discriminatory licensing policies by targeting more economically important sectors such as financial services.

Fishing disputes have been brewing ever since the Brexit trade deal was struck in December, evidence that normal channels for dispute resolution between London and Brussels aren’t working. There have been disagreements over possible U.K. limits on EU fishing boats in the name of conservation, and over the EU’s ban on the export of live shellfish from Britain.

This time the French are protesting about new fishing licenses introduced by Jersey, which they say imposed new restrictions without warning. Jersey fishing workers have complained in turn that they’ve been stopped from landing boats in France; in March they called for U.K. government protection from French boats fishing for scallops and whelks in local waters. 

While Johnson may win some plaudits for defending British interests by sending out the patrol boats, it is his Brexit agreement that hurt his country’s fishing fleets. The Leave campaign was fought partly to “take back control of our waters,” but Johnson’s December trade deal created frictions for the industry in the form of paperwork, delays and new costs that could put smaller concerns out of business. Many long-time fishers were left furious. The collapse of fishing rights talks with Norway adds to the pressure. 

The haggling over fish with the EU will be endless, from annual negotiations on total quotas to all the ways in which other barriers can creep in, as we see with the Jersey licensing saga. Johnson’s government also knows that the harder it is on EU fishing interests, the bigger the blowback on its own. While the U.K. will reclaim more of the quotas in its waters over the next five years, 90% of the fish caught in Jersey is exported to mainland Europe. That gives Brussels leverage.

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement set up six committees to resolve disputes over the divorce deal, while the trade deal has a whopping 19 committees. Ultimately, however, key decisions will be made by politicians.

The Jersey dispute will be resolved without anyone turning out the lights or firing a shot. But it’s an example of the many U.K.-EU pressure points — from Northern Ireland to finance to fish — where relations can break down easily, adding uncertainty, or costs, to doing business. Each has the potential to blow up into a major political row or provoke serious trade reprisals.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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