PARIS — Major French trade unions are threatening to block the port of Calais within 15 days if fishermen do not receive licenses from the U.K. to operate in British waters.
“All the fishermen agree that if we don’t receive a positive response, we will have to increase the pressure,” Stéphane Pinto, of the CFTD, one of two unions to make the threat (the other being the CFTC). “We have to hit British exports to Calais, the tunnel and the ferry.”
“We were told we would get our licenses within four to five days and we’ve been waiting four months, so giving them 15 days is enough,” he said.
A blockade on the port of Calais would cause severe disruptions for British exporters who have already been hit by extra costs and paperwork due to Brexit. 7,500 to 8,500 trucks travel through the Calais port on a daily basis.
On Thursday night, French fishermen staged a protest over the issue in the northern town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Around 150 protesters blocked trucks carrying fish from U.K. waters from entering Europe’s largest seafood processing center.
Only 22 of the 120 boats operating out of Boulogne-sur-Mer have obtained licenses to fish in British waters, according to the regional fisheries committees. Under the Brexit deal with the U.K., French fishermen can apply for licenses to carry on fishing in British waters but conditions set for qualifying for a license have proven difficult for many to meet. Fishermen must show that they have been fishing in U.K. waters from 2012 to 2016 using GPS data.
“The promise of a deal we had has turned out to be a lie,” said Pinto. “I don’t know who was deceitful, but we would have preferred a no-deal because at least we would have had the whole of the EU behind us trying to find a solution.”
The UK however says it has issued licenses to all the vessels that that met their criteria and has said the fishing protests were “unjustified.”
“We take an evidence-based approach to licensing fishing vessels using the information provided by the European Commission,” the U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said, “we do not recognize the figures shared by the French fishing industry.”
The EU commission says only 20 European applications for the access to British waters are still pending. “The Commission received and notified to the UK 108 requests for authorisation, out of which 88 have meanwhile received a licence. These 108 requests cover all relevant regions in France, not only Hauts-de-France [the Calais region],” a spokesperson for the Commission said.
The devil is in the details
The EU commission on Friday said it was in contact with the British authorities to resolve the dispute.
“The top priority when it comes to fishing is to make sure that we have these licence applications that are all dealt immediately,” said a Commission’s spokesperson, “For us, this is indeed an urgency.”
Thursday, France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune and the Fisheries Minister Annick Girardin called on the EU commission to take “firm and determined” action to get the U.K. to apply the Brexit deal.
At the heart of the dispute is whether the criteria agreed in the withdrawal agreement make it difficult for fishermen to qualify for licenses, or whether the British are dragging their feet in delivering licenses.
French fishermen acknowledge the British are right when it comes to the small print of the withdrawal agreement, but say they don’t respect the spirit of the deal.
“The global deal looked superb, but it was too good to be true,” says Olivier Leprêtre, president of the regional fisheries committee in the Hauts-de-France. “When we started sifting through the 1,200 pages of the agreement, we realized that there are lots of blocking criteria. Ultimately, we have been almost completely excluded from British waters.”
Leprêtre says criteria on netting, fish species and fishing zone demarcation are particularly problematic.
According to the EU commission, there is no specific tool in the EU-U.K. post-Brexit agreement to tackle a blockage on fishing licenses, apart from the general dispute settlement mechanism.
‘Profits have plunged’
Fishermen in Boulogne-sur-Mer say they need access to British waters because the Channel is at its narrowest and busiest between France and the U.K.
“Profits have plunged since mid-January, fishermen here have lost 60 to 70 percent of their revenue,” says Leprêtre.
“The problems are only getting worse. We can’t access British waters, but neither can the Dutch nor the Belgians,” said Leprêtre. “And so they are pushed into French waters, which is putting a lot of pressure on our stocks.”
Meanwhile the European Commission cleared €100 million of French aid to the fisheries sector to compensate revenue losses caused by Brexit on Friday.
“The fisheries sector is one of the most affected by Brexit, requiring fishermen and downstream market operators in affected Member States to re-organise and adapt to the new situation,” the EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
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