France threatens legal action as UK ignores EU deadline in post-Brexit fishing row
An EU deadline for Britain to grant licences to dozens of French fishing boats appeared to expire Friday without a final breakthrough in talks, despite France’s threat to seek European legal action.
France says that 104 of its boats still lack licences to operate in British and Channel Island waters that should have been granted under a Brexit deal Britain signed with the European Union in December last year.
But Britain had not made any announcement about granting more licences by 2200 GMT, while France said it was not planning any statement on the matter either.
Britain earlier denied discriminating against French boats and says many of the vessels are unable to provide the paperwork required to qualify for a licence.
“This is a technical process based on evidence rather than deadlines,” a UK government spokesman said.
But France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune held out the possibility of Britain granting “a few dozen more as a gesture of goodwill,” which would mean talks could continue, and the European Commission said it was hoping for a breakthrough later Friday.
“If they stick to their guns, then we will ask the European Commission to begin a legal complaint,” Beaune told Franceinfo radio on Friday.
British Environment Secretary George Eustice held talks with EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius on Friday.
“Intensive technical discussions over recent days have been constructive, however they have not yet reached their conclusion,” the UK spokesperson said.
“Our position remains that vessels must provide sufficient evidence of historic fishing activity in order to receive a licence.”
In Brussels, earlier in the day, an EU spokeswoman said talks with Britain were underway and the goal was still to reach a deal Friday.
“On both sides, on the European Commission and UK, we have agreed that we have this mutual commitment to end these discussions for the successful outcome today,” Vivian Loonela said.
France and Britain have clashed repeatedly this year over fishing as well as migrants crossing the Channel, post-Brexit trade arrangements, and the sale of submarines to Australia.
“The problem with the British government is that it does not do what it says,” French President Emmanuel Macron told a news conference on Thursday, just weeks after he accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson of having a “not serious” approach on tackling migration.
The British government has said it does not recognise Friday as a deadline to resolve the fishing row.
“We’ve never set a deadline. I recognise they (the EU) themselves have set one but it’s not one we’re working to,” Johnson’s spokesman told reporters on Thursday.
If France lodges a complaint with the European Commission, it could lead to the start of a formal infringement procedure against Britain.
EU sanctions threat
The eventual final step, if the two sides are unable to resolve their differences, could see the EU impose financial penalties or even tariffs on British goods if Britain is judged to be reneging on its commitments under the December 2020 post-Brexit trade deal.
The EU and Britain are also locked in a separate trade row over checks on products entering the British province of Northern Ireland after the UK government unilaterally postponed the introduction of checks.
Under the Brexit deal, European fishermen can continue to work in British waters as long as they can prove that they used to fish there.
France says small boats without GPS data are being penalised while Britain is also often refusing to issue licences to new boats that replaced older vessels in the French fishing fleet.
Britain denies the French claims and the European Commission said that officials were studying log books from the French fleet written between 2012-2016 — before boats were equipped with digital monitors — to establish evidence that crews have a history in Jersey waters.
The EU says 95 percent of the licences that Britain promised EU boats after Brexit have been granted, and that the remaining ones in doubt are for waters off the Channel Island of Jersey.
“We received some new evidence from the Commission yesterday and again this morning which we are now studying alongside Jersey,” the UK spokesperson said.
“Clearly, the receipt of this new data is welcome, however we will be led by the quality of the evidence.”