UK-France fish spat deepens despite Macron and Johnson talk

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French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepare to throw a coin in the water at the Trevi Fountain during an event for the G20 summit in Rome, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021. The two-day Group of 20 summit concludes on Sunday, the first in-person gathering of leaders of the world’s biggest economies since the COVID-19 pandemic started. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stuck to rival positions Sunday in their countries’ post-Brexit dispute over fishing in the English Channel, with France maintaining its threat to impose sanctions starting Tuesday that could include a blockade of British boats.

The two leaders held a 30-minute meeting on Sunday morning while attending the Group of 20 nations summit in Rome, and each addressed the escalating tensions over the granting of fishing licenses as they held separate news conferences at the end of the meeting.

“I don’t want any escalation, but we must take things seriously,” Macron said “My wish is not to go toward retaliation measures…It’s rather to find an agreement.”

France has threatened to bar British boats from some of its ports and tighten checks on boats and trucks carrying U.K. goods if more French vessels aren’t licensed to fish in U.K. waters by Tuesday. Paris has also suggested it might restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands — British Crown dependencies that lie off the coast of France and are heavily dependent on French electricity.

Macron said he invited Johnson to work on a “methodology” for granting more fishing licenses to French ships.

“The ball is now in their court. If the British don’t do any significant move, (retaliation) measures starting from Nov. 2 will need to be implemented,” the French president said. “I would deplore it. But what we cannot do is not respond and not defend our fishermen.”

Fishing is a tiny industry economically, but one that looms large symbolically for maritime nations like Britain and France. Britain’s exit from the economic rules of the 27-nation European Union at the start of the year means the U.K. now controls who fishes in its waters.

Paris claims some vessels have been denied permits to fish in waters where they have long sailed. Britain says it has granted 98% of applications from EU vessels, and now the dispute comes down to just a few dozen French boats with insufficient paperwork.

Johnson, speaking at the same time as Macron on Sunday, said the U.K.’s position “is unchanged.”

“I must say I was puzzled to read a letter from the French prime minister explicitly asking for Britain to be punished for leaving the EU,” the prime minister said. “I just have to say to everybody that I don’t believe that is compatible either with the spirit or the letter” of the U.K.’s withdrawal deal and post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU.

Both sides accuse the other of breaching the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Britain says it is “actively considering” launching dispute settlement proceedings, a formal legal process in the deal, if France does not drop its threats.

A top French top official said Johnson and Macron agreed during their meeting Sunday that there was a need to talk to each other “in a situation of important tensions.” He said actions need to be taken “as soon as possible” to get to a de-escalation.

The French official, speaking anonymously in accordance with the presidency’s customary practices, said France and Britain would have talks “in the coming hours and days” on practical details, with the aim to “ease tensions and stabilize the situation.”

Britain, however, denied the leaders had agreed to take steps to deescalate the spat, saying it was entirely up to France to calm the waters.

The U.K. government said in a statement that during the meeting, Johnson “reiterated his deep concern” over France’s rhetoric and “expressed his hope that the French government would de-escalate.”

Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said “it will be for the French to decide whether they want to step away from the threats they have made in recent days.”

“Both in our rhetoric and our actions we have not in any way sought to escalate this,” Blain said. “.The de-escalation would have to come from the French side.”

But France’s Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune on Sunday accused Britain of “targeting” France in a “political choice” and said Britain had breached the terms of the Brexit deal.

“For the EU as a whole, around 90% of the expected licenses have been granted, but all the missing ones are French,” he tweeted.

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