French Fishing Boats Kept at Bay

French licences not granted
Fishing fleet at Roscoff, Britanny
Roscoff fishing fleet, Britanny – picture by MartinD, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Furious at UK for Refusing Channel Fishing Licences

French Fishermen gathered on 29 September to complain to Annick Girardin, Minister of the Sea, about the small number of licences that the British authorities had granted for fishing in the English Channel. Fishing boss, Olivier Leprêtre, said that although 12 licences had been granted, there were still 35 in the pipeline, waiting since 1 January 2021 to get the licence.

For the next two weeks, the French authorities will discuss with the EU  representatives of the other 27 countries to see if a diplomatic solution can be found. But, if not, the fishing boss threatens to instigate action against the British, not blocking the port, but stopping British goods.

How Serious for Kent?

Now how seriously should authorities in Kent take this threat from the other side of the Channel? The worst consequences would indeed be the blocking of the lorries, as we saw during the French strike of 2018, which caused a spectacular traffic jam up the M20 to the Thames, and many blockages on smaller roads caused by lorries trying to get round.

Could 35 disgruntled French fishermen cause that much chaos? The French are infamous for spectacular industrial action, especially the farmers when someone threatens their interests.

So cool-headed political leaders, on both sides of the Channel, need to assess Lepetre’s menacing words carefully. Does he actually have enough manpower to block the arterial trade route at its pinch point in Calais? Or does he mean that he has enough public sympathy to get many French customers to boycott English exports?

Trade with France

Let’s look at what goods the UK actually exports to France. The list in order of value goes like this; data for 2020:

Machinery including nuclear reactors ($3.36bn)
Aircraft ($3.18bn)
Vehicles ($1.72bn)
Electric and Electronic machinery ($1.50bn)
Pharmaceutical products ($1.14bn)
Fuel and Oils ($1.04)
Optical, photo equipment, including for medical use ($826.30m)
Precious stones and coins ($677.30m)
Beverages and spirits ($655.88m)
Fish, crustaceans, molluscs ($634m)

The first eight categories would not be easy items to boycott or block. How do you stop nuclear reactor parts and what would the public feel if most of France suffered power cuts as a result? Or if you stop MRI machines going into French hospitals for cancer patients?

So we must assume that Lepetre’s menaces refer to goods that are more visible in  the shopping trolley or the restaurant, like Scotch whisky or … Whitstable oysters.

Now there’s a good bargaining point … from a Kent point of view. So let’s give some advice to the diplomats who will be talking to the Minister of the Sea and her EU colleagues. 

The French, who are the main customers for Whitstable oysters, should declare that the EU regulation around depuration for oysters imported from the UK would gradually be lifted, provided x number of licences for Channel fishing is granted to the frustrated fishers of Hauts-de-France. 

Now isn’t that a fair trade deal? All linked to the same specialist ministries (of fish and the sea), so they should all get on swimmingly. Hope they can do it in two weeks.