How a small fishing boat became a ‘political pawn’ in an international row between Britain and France

Oct 29, 2021 News

How a small fishing boat became a ‘political pawn’ in an international row between Britain and France

Owned by the Scottish seafood giant Macduff Shellfish, the Cornelis had been fishing in the Baie de la Seine area when a French police boat pulled alongside shortly before sunset on Wednesday .

The gendarmes had been sent out with orders from Paris to check British boats for their papers – special licences allowing them to fish in French waters after Brexit. 

At first, one British trawler captain resisted by refusing to drop down his ladder allowing the French to climb aboard. On Thursday, he was issued with a fine.

But on the Cornelis, the problem was even more serious.

The captain of the Cornelis Gert Jan was told that he faced a E75,000 fine, and the threat of further criminal action

Credit: Arjan Buurveld via Reuters

“The captain knew he had the licence, and handed it over. But the French police wouldn’t accept it,” one source said.

“They told him to follow them back to Le Havre. It was confusing, and quite distressing for the crew.”

Once at Le Havre, the police ordered the captain to show up at a French police station at 9am the following morning, where he was questioned for five hours alongside a lawyer hired by the boat’s owners. 

Eventually, the captain was told that he faced a E75,000 fine, and the threat of further criminal action for fishing 2,160kg of scallops without a valid licence. 

The Cornelis was still tied up at Le Havre on Thursday, with the crew forbidden to leave until further notice.

Andrew Brown, director of MacDuff Shellfish, said the boat was fishing legally and suggested the vessel had “slipped off the list” of approved licences because of a clerical error committed on the UK side.

But he said the French decision to step up security checks on the British fishing fleet was a deliberate act aimed at intimidating British fishermen and forcing the UK government into a climbdown.

"Access to French waters for the UK scallop fleet is provided under the Brexit Fisheries Agreement. Macduff’s fishing activity is entirely legal," he said.

"It appears our vessel is another political pawn in the ongoing dispute between the UK and France on the implementation of the Brexit Fishing Agreement.”

‘Zero tolerance’ approach

French ministers were happy to admit that the seizure of the Cornelis was part of a new “zero tolerance” regime in retaliation for the Government’s refusal to grant more access to French fishermen to operate in the UK’s coastal waters.

“We have actually started tonight with security checks, it allowed us to board and search two British boats which did not comply with the rules so no tolerance, no indulgence,” said Clement Beaune, France’s Europe minister. 

"We need to speak the language of force, as I’m afraid it is the only thing this British Government will understand.

“We cannot be in a climate of trust with a neighbour who does not abide by the rules.”

George Eustice, Britain’s Environment Secretary, insisted that the vessel did have a licence to fish in the area.

"They were on the list that was provided by the Marine Management Organisation initially to the European Union. The European Union therefore did grant a licence," he told parliament.

"We are seeing some reports that for some reason, they were subsequently withdrawn from the list. It is unclear why that might have been at the moment." 

On Thursday, Defra officials were investigating how the apparent error occurred.

‘Not war, it’s a fight’

France is furious that just 15 permits have been granted to French fishermen to operate in Britain’s coastal waters out of 47 applications, and this week announced a series of sanctions it would take against Britain until further permits were granted by November 2. 

European Commission and UK officials are currently locked in “boat-by-boat” negotiations over the excluded vessels.

Paris has threatened to ramp up its border checks on goods arriving from Britain, block access to British fishing boats to its ports, and raise tariffs on electricity supplies to the Channel Islands. France could also deliberately scupper post-Brexit discussions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, it was warned. 

Annick Girardin, France’s maritime minister, told French radio news programme RTL Matin that Britain’s "failure to comply" with the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) is "unacceptable".

"It’s not war, it’s a fight," she said.

Pascal Coquet, president of the National Scallop Fishermen’s Committee, said. "There has to be an end to this fraud. Our boats don’t have the right to approach English shores because they lack the licenses. We can’t let them carry on like that."

In Jersey, Gregory Guida, the home affairs minister, who was born in Paris, said the threats made him “ashamed to be French”.

“If France has said it is going to do that unilaterally, then it makes you wonder why they are part of the EU,” he said. 

“I am quite ashamed of being French right now. They are showing a complete disregard for EU protocols and a complete disregard for the truth. It feels like we are back in kindergarten – it is really ridiculous.”

Asked whether the UK or Jersey could take countermeasures against France, Mr Guida said: ‘Yes. But if we do I am sure we will act like grown-ups and use the protocols and act within international laws to do so.”

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