George Eustice, UK Environment Secretary said: 'There obviously is [a Presidential] election coming up in France. It may be that is a factor in this'. And Boris Johnson: 'There may be people on either side of the Channel who want to create the impression of disharmony, but I don't think Emmanuel shares that perspective at all'. So it's all just a cynical Macron election ploy. Except it isn't. Thanks, guys.
Unfortunately, it matters. The volatile row over post-Brexit fishing rights that this week frothed up with impoundment of a Scottish-owned scallop boat at Le Havre is exactly the kind of circumstance in which clarity of message, a skill the Johnson Government seems to find challenging, needs to be paramount. Sunday's abject failure of a Johnson/Macron bilateral to sort it out underlines that need.
Yet, in an odd way, Eustice and Johnson were both half-right. France's tough line cannot be entirely dissociated from the febrile atmosphere of a Presidential election… any more than can we discount Johnson's eternal need to keep the flag-toting right in his party at bay. But Johnson is also right to infer that the row is about other, and much bigger, things too.
No doubt Macron is indeed weighing every thought and deed with a mind to next spring's election. Name me any elected politician anywhere who wouldn't. It is also true that the fishermen of the Channel ports were vocal supporters of Macron last time around, and he would like their votes again. As any party hopeful in Moray or Buchan will tell you, fishing votes need perpetual wooing.
None of that, though, explains how an abstruse argument about fishery licences ended up in bellicose threats of switched-off undersea power supplies, blockaded ports, international law suits and an ambassador getting a scolding from an obscure junior minister. The answer is that the origins of this row are to be found much earlier than last week; and in what the French regard as more substantial issues than filling in forms about scraping scallops off the ocean floor.
We should also note in passing that the row isn't exactly the talk of the steamie in France – certainly not to the extent that it has excited the high-octane minds that compose British tabloid headlines. Here in France, even the bulky weekend editions of the quality newspapers, their attention taken up with the G20 and COP26, barely paid it a heed. It merited a single column in the business section of the conservative Figaro
, while the liberal Le Monde
left the story to its online edition (while devoting half a page in the main paper to a profile of Nicola Sturgeon). The London press's perception that the fisheries row (and, by implication, France) would bear the blame for any ensuing failures of COP26 was also somehow overlooked by commentators across the Channel.
Fishermen are as noisy in grievance in France as anywhere else, but they are recognised to represent a tiny proportion of the republic's economy, and reported as such. Still, the anger on both sides is real enough. The essence of the Brexit fisheries deal was that for specified stocks the British and Europeans would continue until 2026 to allow each other under licence into grounds they had fished in previous years. Each side now accuses the other of finding spurious reasons for refusing licenses. The Scottish trawler, the Cornelis Gert
, reportedly 'slipped off' France's approved list because it had fitted a new engine. The French, equally, are incensed that Britain has refused more than 30 French applications, while Jersey, never indifferent to its own economic interests, has refused 55.
Small beer, you might think: but the dispute connects all too easily with other, wider, points of issue, and also lends itself readily to escalating forms of retaliation. Brexiteer braggadocio about 'taking back control of our waters' ran up against the awkward fact that, while most of the fish are in British waters, half the UK's own catch and two-thirds of its fish products are sold into the EU single market.
Hence France's readiness to stand firm on the terms of the deal, as it sees them. British fishermen need to catch the fish, but they also need to sell it through continental ports. And Jersey, if it wants to play difficult, needs reminded about whose finger is on the switch of its electricity supply. Britain, meanwhile, roused itself to heights of Palmerstonian affront over the same issue in May by sending gunboats to deter a blockade of St Helier by French trawlers, and says it stands ready to do so again.
The truth of the matter is that the real heat of this dispute does not arise from fish, but from the serial melodrama of the wider Brexit negotiations and their aftermath. If you were looking for a single Sarajevo spark, it would be the Northern Ireland Protocol where, in continental eyes, Johnson signed up to a last-minute spatchcock of a deal, then promptly set about trying to renege on it. Other interpretations of this history are available, of course; but the British threat – in defiance of international law – unilaterally to abrogate parts of the Protocol it had signed, rang alarm bells all across the EU, as well as reinforcing the solidarity of the other 26 countries behind Ireland.
This is what lay behind Macron's icy reference in his Financial Times
interview to the British Government's global 'credibility' being at stake. The French concern about fish licences is not that their boats may be diddled out of a few herring, but that the UK is at it again: trying to wriggle out of a disadvantageous deal to which it signed up in imprudent haste. And that's before anyone mentions the open wound of the AUKUS submarine contract.
The British, in turn, attribute what Johnson called the 'turbulence in the relationship' both to French electoral politics and to what they perceive to be Gallic vindictiveness over Brexit – a perception corroborated by Prime Minister Jean Castex's foolish advice in a letter to the EU Commission to make sure the dispute shows leaving the EU to be more damaging than remaining. Another Castex sentence, though, deserves more serious attention: 'It is essential clearly to show to European public opinion that honouring the commitments entered into is not negotiable'.
In fact, the Commission has, at time of writing, done its level best to steer clear of this dispute, apparently anxious to contain it at the level of a squabble between two nation states. London may quietly have taken the same view, in that Eustice has been the lead voice in arguing the toss rather than Brexit supremo David Frost, a man whose emollient skills recall John Reid's old role as hand grenade of choice for finessing any delicate situation. Frost is already in full combat rig, trying to re-draft the Irish Protocol. That is not a linkage London would want to make with the fisheries dispute.
So, what does this row have to do with the race for the Elysée Palace? Not much. Nor, to adapt the old cliché, does it really have all that much to do with the price of fish. What it is about at root is a commodity that is more elusive, more abstract, but also more precious: namely, trust.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster