If you were to take the headlines on most British and French news broadcasts or in the popular press, you could be forgiven for thinking that the UK and France were on the verge of trading cannon fire across the English Channel.
For the past two weeks, the two have been trading barbs across the world’s busiest shipping route and the 20-kilometre stretch of water that separates them. It’s an issue that comes up every year or so and has everything to do with political posturing and very little to do with the fish that are pulled from the fathoms below.
Let’s face it, fish has actually very little to do with either nation’s economy. It amounts to slightly more than 0.06 per cent for France, and just 0.1 per cent for the UK’s economy — so yes, we’re talking small fry here. But as an emotional touchstone, well — consider it to be a political whale. And for both UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, it allows both to wave their respective flags at a time when their respective domestic agendas are rather turbot — sorry — turbulent.
Let’s take the UK first. Remember Brexit — who could forget it, right — well, now that the British economy is emerging from the hibernation of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s growing concern over what is euphemistically referred to as “the supply chain crisis”.
No petrol at the pumps? Empty shelves? A shortage of truck drivers? That’s the “supply chain crisis”.
But behind that handy tagline propagated by spin doctors and back room political hacks is the reality that the reason why there’s a shortage of some goods on the shelves is because of the red tape brought in by Brexit. So too a shortage of foreign workers who used to keep that logistics chain oiled and moving — moved on by an inability to legally work in the UK anymore.
A shortage or produce? Well, if the foreign workers who used to pick and pluck produce on farms can’t work in the UK, then something has to give. And a shortage of some building materials? If it’s too much hassle to export building products from the European mainland to a post-Brexit Britain, those goods will simply be sold to European outlets where post-pandemic demand is also emerging from economic hibernation.
It’s not rocket science. If there are impediments to the free movement of goods, services and people — and that’s exactly what getting Brexit done imposed on the UK when it left the world’s third largest economic market — then that means less workers, less choice and higher prices. Exactly what’s happening in the UK now.
Two years into this brave new Brexit world, British folks are beginning to realise that leaving the EU isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. A recent poll found that 70 per cent had misgivings, But too late, that horse has bolted.
So if a fishing spat with France offers a chance for the Johnson government to wave the Union Jack, slag off the EU and the French across the channel and inject some good old fashioned jingoism into any doubting Brexiteers, then all the better.
But that deal clinched by Boris from Brussels to get Brexit done allows for French vessels to continue fishing in British waters. Yes, in all of the hoopla of signing off on the Withdrawal Agreement, the actual fine print was very clear. Just as it was clear too that Northern Ireland faced issues down the road when Boris agreed to put the customs union down the Irish Sea and separate it from England, Scotland and Wales.
The Brexit trade deal contained an agreement on fish — but the French and the British hold opposing interpretations. In the rush to get Brexit done, the text was left ambiguous. The French are allowed to continue operating in Channel Islands’ waters as long as they can prove they previously fished there. But proving it is difficult. The French say the detailed logbooks from the small boats are good enough to prove historical fishing rights; the UK wants GPS data — but the boats are so small that many don’t have satellite location equipment on board.
But this isn’t about logbooks or GPS and the less than 60 small craft at the centre of this latest maritime mess.
The fear in Paris is that if London is allowed to get its way in this fishing row so early into the new EU-UK relationship, that could set a precedent for other disputes — like that Northern Ireland protocol that, given the historical context and the tensions that run between Loyalist and Nationalist communities across the province, has a very real propensity towards violence.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of Macron himself. With an election due next spring, the French president has every reason to be seen to be standing up for French values. There’s no harm in standing by the fishermen even though their catch is worth just 0.06 per cent to its national economy. And if it sends a message to Eurosceptics domestically, then that’s not a bad thing either, right?
The whole unseemly row between the UK and France had threatened to spill over into COP26, the international and critical summit now underway in Glasgow.
For Johnson, it’s a diplomatic showpiece of his new post-Brexit Britain, and the last thing he needed was to be seen as distracted by an escalating fishing dispute. Heck, if he couldn’t solve that, what chance of saving the planet from global warming?
Just as the Glasgow summit got underway, Britain and France agreed to de-escalate the dispute for now. Come the New Year, with elections on the horizon, the trawlers will become bait once more.