GRANVILLE – French trawler owners in Normandy have reacted with confusion and consternation after President Emmanuel Macron extended a Tuesday deadline for the British government to license more French fishing vessels, the subject of a post-Brexit spat between the two countries.
Macron said Britain now has until at least Thursday, to authorize more French boats to fish in U.K. waters or face consequences. France has threatened to bar British boats from some of its ports and to tighten checks on vessels and trucks carrying British goods if no solution is found.
“We don’t know what to expect. We learn new things every day,” trawler owner Samuel Deshayes told The Associated Press in Granville, a coastal commune in Normandy not far from the British island of Jersey in the English Channel. “We will not give up until everyone has obtained a license.”
Fishing is a tiny industry economically for both countries but with outsized diplomatic importance, and the dispute is an important test for Britain's relations with the European Union after the U.K.'s withdrawal from the EU.
Fishing also looms large symbolically for both Britain and France, which have long and cherished maritime traditions. Since the start of the year, both sides have control of their waters, subject to the Brexit trade deal the U.K. signed when it left the European Union. The French and British governments accuse each other of contravening the trade deal.
While preparing at 4 a.m. to head out from Granville to trawl for scallops and sea snails, fisherman Jimmy Montreuil said he feels “in the dark” about how long he'll be able to fish freely. The area is also rich with lobster, sea bream and other fish.
Many French fishermen are pointing fingers at the Channel Islands, including Jersey and Guernsey, which are self-governing British crown dependencies that crucially have control over their own territorial waters.
France has said that Jersey, which is only 14 miles (about 22 kilometers) off the coast of France, hasn't issued enough licenses to French vessels and suggested it might restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands, which are heavily dependent on French electricity..
“Jersey — I don’t know why they are causing problems. Even the English don’t quite understand why Jersey is resisting,” Deshayes said.
The government of Jersey has reacted by issuing 49 temporary licenses to French boats this week. It said the vessels will be able to fish in Jersey waters until Jan. 31 to “grant time” for further data that is necessary for it to issue permanent licenses.
Emmanuel Lecoufle, owner of French trawler Arc en Ciel in Granville, said that the new permits are "not enough. There are still 200 boats pending. It is nothing at all, 49 licenses,” he said.
Meanwhile, the French trawler owners who were granted extended licenses said they still don't understand what will happen next.
Macron’s office said Monday that talks would continue this week and no measures would be taken before a Thursday meeting.
An official with the French presidency said Tuesday that discussions “are advancing” and that France hopes to “move forward” from the fishing dispute to focus on bigger issues, such as climate change.
“Neither us nor the British want this to go badly," said the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named.
The British government has said throughout the dispute that it isn't engaged in a negotiation and it is entirely up to France to end the conflict.
The government in London welcomed Macron's decision to extend the deadline and said a meeting in Paris on Thursday between Britain’s Brexit minister, David Frost, and French Europe Minister Clement Beaune would cover a range of issues — not just fishing.
“We’ve always said we want to deescalate this and always said we have an ever-open door to discuss any further evidence France or the EU might have on any additional vessels they’d like to have licensed," British environment minister George Eustice told Sky News.
Eustice said it appears that a British scallop dredger — the Cornelis Gert Jan — that French authorities impounded last month has been released.
Thomas Adamson in Paris and Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.
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