France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, has said Paris will “now use the language of force” in an escalation of a row over post-Brexit fishing rights, as French maritime police seized a British trawler found in its territorial waters without a licence.
One vessel had been stopped off Le Havre in the early hours of Thursday morning after which it was rerouted to the quay and “handed over to the judicial authority”, while a second was given a verbal warning.
In a statement, the French government said the checks during the scallop fishing season had been routine but admitted they were conducted “in the context of the discussion on licences with the United Kingdom and the European Commission”.
The trawler was later identified as the Cornelis Gert Jan, by a spokeswoman for the South West Fish Producers Organisation.
The French government has been infuriated in recent months by the response of the authorities in the UK and Jersey to post-Brexit applications from French fishing vessels for permits to its waters, which are regulated by the EU-UK trade deal agreed on Christmas Eve last year.
The row blew up on Wednesday when Paris said it would ban British fishing boats landing seafood in key ports from Tuesday unless their received further licences for French vessels and vowed to impose onerous checks on cross-Channel trade.
There was also a threat issued to the UK’s energy supply if those initial sanctions from Paris did not prompt the issuing of extra permits.
The move prompted a dramatic response from Downing Street, where a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said the UK government would retaliate over what was described as a potential breach of international law.
Sources in Brussels confirmed there was not yet support among the other 26 member states for EU action against the UK on the issue through the dispute resolution mechanism in the trade-and-cooperation deal.
Later on Thursday morning, Beaune doubled down, however, on the threat of unilateral French action saying the situation was “not acceptable”. “So now, we need to speak the language of force since that seems to be the only thing this British government understands,” he said. “We have been extremely patient, our fishing boats have been extremely responsible, because it’s a major loss of their activity. From November, it’s over. We’ll open dialogue if the British want dialogue – it’s up to them – but we’ll put in place retaliation measures because there is no reason we shouldn’t have access to their waters when they have access to our ports.”
The UK has claimed that 1,700 EU vessels have now been licensed to fish in UK waters and that 98% of applications for fishing licences had been granted.
The French maritime minister, Annick Girardin, accused the UK of spreading misinformation. “The figure of 98% of licences granted by the United Kingdom to Europeans is false,” she said. “Only 90.3% were. Obviously, the missing 10% are for the French … It has been nine months since French fishermen have no longer been able to work. It is a breach of their signature by the British. That’s enough.”
The main differences between the two sides centres on rights within the 6-12 mile zone from the British coast. Earlier this week, the European Commission said the UK government had approved 15 out of 47 applications for French boats to operate in those coastal waters. A further 15 applications are being considered where evidence of activity in those waters is limited, but 17 applications have been withdrawn by French applicants because of “poor evidence”.
Of greater concern to the French authorities, a third of boats applying to fish in the waters off Jersey, a British crown dependency, have also been turned down by the island’s government.
Barrie Deas, from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, the body representing fishers in England, said the descent into a “tit for tat” relationship was “unhelpful”.
He told the BBC’s Today programme: “It may be normal enforcement action but against the background of the threatening noises coming from the French government … it’s very concerning.
“France seems determined to escalate this issue about licences and I suppose we have to wonder why. There’s a presidential election coming up in France and all the signs are that the rhetoric has been ramped up ahead of that on the fishing issue.”
Deas added: “[The amount of] UK vessels landing into French ports is not massive. It’s a bit strange because the French fleets fish much more in UK waters than we fish in their waters.
“Therefore if we descend into a tit-for-tat relationship, I think the French fleet are very much more exposed – I don’t think that’s a very helpful way to go. It’s a strange direction for the French to take, which is why we conclude that this has all been politicised.”
Lord Frost, the UK’s Brexit minister, tweeted that it was “very disappointing” that the French government had made the threats and the government would seek “urgent clarification” of France’s plans and “will consider what further action is necessary in that light”, he said.