France sets two-week deadline for Britain and Jersey to grant fishermen more licences

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French fishing boats - Fred Tanneau/AFP
French fishing boats - Fred Tanneau/AFP

France has set a two-week deadline for Britain and Jersey to give French fishermen greater access to their coastal waters ahead of attempts by EU and UK negotiators to find a resolution to the post-Brexit row over licences.

During a tense meeting with the European Commission and representatives from the French fishing industry, Annick Girardin, France's maritime minister, gave Britain and its Crown dependency until Nov 1 to approve more licences or risk retaliatory measures.

Paris is furious that the UK approved just 15 permits for small French fishing boats to operate in its coastal waters out of 47 applications.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has told his government to draw up plans for reprisals against Britain in four areas, including cutting energy supplies to the UK and Jersey or severing Anglo-French ties in defence and security.

He is under growing pressure from angry French trawlermen – who have threatened to blockade the English Channel – and his political rivals ahead of next April's presidential elections.

According to sources, Ms Girardin told Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice-president, and Virginijus Sinkevicius, the commissioner responsible for fisheries, that Paris could strike unilaterally if Britain or Jersey do not grant more licences to French vessels.

Jersey, which relies on France for 95 per cent of its electricity supply, has taken a similar decision to restrict the level of access for EU trawlermen off its coast. It issued 66 full licences and 31 temporary permits, but refused 73 applications.

EU boats have until the end of October to provide data to prove their post-Brexit right to fish in the Channel Island's waters.

Ms Girardin told the EU commissioners she is "preparing, with colleagues from other ministries, response measures that France can implement from Nov 1 if necessary", a source said.

"We are two weeks away from this [Jersey] decision. Nothing has been ruled out today, neither by France nor by the European Commission," she told reporters after the meeting.

"Boat-by-boat" negotiations between UK and EU officials are also under way in an attempt to establish whether more French vessels could be granted access to Britain's coastal waters.

In what was described as a "frank and heated" discussion, leading representatives from the French fishing industry called on Brussels to walk out of the talks and hit Britain, which was accused of being in breach of the Brexit trade agreement, with retaliatory measures.

"We are tired of this bad faith shown by the United Kingdom in the implementation of the agreement, and more particularly in the issuance of access to the six to 12-mile fishing zones," Gerard Romiti, the president of France’s National Committee of Fisheries and Aquaculture, told the meeting.

'It is now a matter of politicians initiating retaliatory measures'

Mr Romiti, according to a transcript of the meeting, added: "It is time to put an end to these pseudo-technical discussions. It is now a matter of politicians resuming their rights, raising their voice and initiating retaliatory measures so that no concessions are made to the English."

Brussels has so far resisted calls by the French government to use EU powers to shut the UK or Jersey out of the bloc’s energy supplies or hit British fish with trade tariffs.

EU officials told the meeting, which took place at the commission's Berlaymont headquarters late on Friday, that they favoured further negotiations to find a resolution to the dispute.

A spokesman said the commission's "top priority" is to work "in a constructive manner in order to resolve the outstanding issues concerning access to UK territorial waters and to the waters of the Channel Islands".

The spokesman added: "Vice-president Sefcovic and commissioner Sinkevicius reassured the French side of their commitment to ensure that outstanding requests are dealt with in a speedy manner."

EU, British and French officials have agreed to meet this week for "intensive" discussions over the rejected licences. The Government is helping French fishermen prove that they are permitted to access Britain’s coastal waters under the terms of the Brexit trade agreement, including purchasing third-party GPS data that could prove their status.

A government spokesman said: "We continue to work with the European Commission and French authorities and remain open to considering any further evidence that supports the remaining licence applications."

To create space for the negotiations, French fishermen said they would hold off on threats to blockade the Channel.

"Pending a return to the discussions between the European Commission and the United Kingdom, the elected members of the Committee for Marine Fisheries and Aquaculture of Hauts-de-France Council also proposed a postponement of possible actions to be taken," Olivier Lepretre, president of the powerful regional fisheries committee, in northern France, said.

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