Britain and France faced calls Saturday to sort out their post-Brexit spat over fishing rights in the English Channel, which threatens to escalate within days into a damaging French blockade of British boats and trucks.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the dispute is testing the U.K.’s international credibility, while each country accused the other of being in breach of the post-Brexit trade agreement that Britain’s government signed with the European Union before it left the bloc.
As the war of words intensified, Britain said it was “actively considering” launching legal action if France goes through with threats to bar U.K. fishing boats from its ports and slap strict checks on British catches.
“If there is a breach of the (Brexit) treaty or we think there is a breach of the treaty then we will do what is necessary to protect British interests,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told British broadcasters in Rome, where he and Macron are both attending a Group of 20 summit.
At stake is fishing — a tiny industry economically that looms large symbolically for maritime nations like Britain and France. Britain’s exit from the economic rules of the 27-nation bloc at the start of this year means the U.K. now controls who fishes in its waters.
France claims some vessels have been denied permits to fish in waters where they have long sailed. Britain says it has granted 98% of applications from EU vessels, and now the dispute comes down to just a few dozen French boats with insufficient paperwork.
But France argues it’s a matter of principle and wants to defend its interests as the two longtime allies and rivals set out on a new, post-Brexit relationship.
The dispute escalated this week after French authorities accused a Scottish-registered scallop dredger of fishing without a license. The captain was detained in Le Havre and has been told to face a court hearing next year.
France has threatened to block British boats crossing the English Channel and tighten checks on boats and trucks from Tuesday if the licenses aren’t granted. France has also suggested it might restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands — British Crown dependencies that lie off the coast of France and are heavily dependent on French electricity.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex appealed to the EU to back France in the dispute, saying the bloc should demonstrate to people in Europe that “leaving the Union is more damaging than remaining in it.”
U.K. Brexit Minister David Frost called Castex’s comments “troubling” and accused France of a pattern of threats “to our fishing industry, to energy supplies, and to future cooperation.”
He said if France acted on the threats it “would put the EU in breach of its obligations under our trade agreement,” and said Britain was “actively considering launching dispute settlement proceedings,” a formal legal process in the deal.
He urged France and the EU to “step back.”
Many EU politicians and officials regard Frost, who led negotiations on Britain’s divorce deal, as intrinsically hostile to the bloc.
Macron, who is scheduled to meet Johnson on Sunday on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, defended France’s position and said the fishing dispute could hurt Britain’s reputation worldwide.
“Make no mistake, it is not just for the Europeans but all of their partners,” Macron told the Financial Times. “Because when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility.”
Macron said he was sure that Britain has “good will” to solve the dispute. “We need to respect each other and respect the word that has been given,” he said.
Johnson said the fishing issue was a distraction from fighting climate change — top of the G-20 leaders’ agenda at their meeting, which comes before a U.N. climate conference in Scotland next week.
“I am looking at what is going on at the moment and I think that we need to sort it out. But that is quite frankly small beer, trivial, by comparison with the threat to humanity that we face,” Johnson added.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, president and chairman of the northern French ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, said the spat was “ridiculous” and urged both sides to resolve it.
He told BBC radio that the dispute was over just 40 boats — “a drop in the ocean” — and that there would be “terrible” consequences if France carried out its threat of blocking British trawlers from French ports.
“If no agreement can be found, it will be a drama, it will be a disaster in your country because the trucks will not cross,” he said.