France has threatened to retaliate against Britain in yet another post-Brexit dispute, this time over fishing rights in what the British call the English Channel and the French refer to as La Manche, the narrow arm of the Atlantic Ocean separating England's southern coast from the northern shores of France.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Wednesday retaliation could begin by the end of next week.
France is fuming at the British government's refusal to allow more French boats to fish in its territorial waters near Britain's Channel Isles. Britain has issued 325 fishing licenses but declined 125 applications from French fishermen who say they also have been trawling those waters in recent years. Under the terms of the trade deal struck last year by Britain with the European Union as it exited the bloc, they should be granted access too, the fishermen say.
An exasperated French government has threatened a dramatic escalation in the dispute and warned it is considering cutting or reducing electricity supplies to the Channel Islands and the British mainland, which gets 7% of its power from France.
The dispute over French trawlers accessing waters off Britain's Channel Islands prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this year to dispatch Royal Navy vessels to patrol the area with France responding by sending patrol ships to protect French trawlers.
On Tuesday French Prime Minister Jean Castex said his government was ready to review all bilateral cooperation with Britain, and French President Emmanuel Macron has been pressing the EU to consider wider reprisals.
Speaking in France's National Assembly Castex called on the EU to get tougher with Britain and said Brussels should "do more." He added, "We will refer the matter to the arbitration panel of the agreement to lead the British to respect their word [and] we will question all the conditions for the more global implementation of the agreements concluded under the aegis of the European Union, but also, if necessary, the bilateral cooperation that we have with the United Kingdom," he said.
But Brussels appears reluctant to get deeply involved in the fishing dispute, although officially it is backing Paris and has berated the British.
France's Europe Minister Clément Beaune has outlined some possible reprisals, including slapping tariffs on British fish exports. "Britons need us to sell their products, including from fishing, they need us for their energy, for their financial services and for their research centres," Beaune said last week. "All of this gives us pressure points. We have the means to modulate the degree of our cooperation, to reduce it, if Britain does not implement the agreement," he added.
In the grander scheme of things, a dispute over 125 fishing licenses would seem a minor matter that should not derail relations between European neighbors, but the two governments have been dueling angrily for months and the clash over post-Brexit fishing is adding venom to an already poisonous relationship.
Diplomats on both sides describe Anglo-French relations as "dreadful" and acknowledge they have never been as bad in their professional lifetimes. They say for a comparison you would have to go back to the 1960s. That was when French President Gen. Charles de Gaulle kept slamming the door on British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's efforts to get France's backing for Britain to join the then-European Community. Macmillan was reduced to tears of frustration after one meeting with De Gaulle.
But at least the two statesmen met face-to-face. The British say they have been trying to arrange sit-down talks for months between Johnson and Macron. Their French counterparts say they doubt a sit-down between the two leaders would accomplish anything.
Other historians cite as a comparison the 1890s when Britain and France were locked in rivalry in a scramble for African colonies. That competition eventually ended when the two signed in 1904 the Entente Cordiale, a set of agreements that marked a significant improvement in Anglo-French relations.
But there are few prospects of a new Entente Cordiale. Some former British diplomats agree there is little point in a Johnson-Macron face-to-face. "The bilateral rows are more numerous and more public than at any time since the major rift over Iraq in 2003. Some level of trust has to be rebuilt before a summit would be worthwhile," tweeted Peter Rickets, a retired senior diplomat and former chairman of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee under Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Since formally departing the EU more than year ago — and in the years of ill-tempered negotiations between Brussels and London leading up to Brexit — hardly a week has gone by without the British and French sniping at each other, a squabbling that has been amplified by Britain's notoriously Francophobe tabloid press and France's equally patriotic media.
In his New Year address in January, Macron assured Britain that France would remain a "friend and ally" despite Brexit, but he slammed the British decision to leave the bloc as one born from "lies and false promises."
This year alone the two countries have clashed cross-Channel migration with London accusing French authorities of not doing enough to stop migrants and asylum-seekers — more than 10,000 this year so far — crossing La Manche in dinghies and small boats. The French have accused Britain of not having paid money it promised to help French authorities police their coastline to prevent migrants from trying to cross the Channel.
The countries have clashed also over supplies of the COVID vaccine made by AstraZeneca, a British-Swedish company, with the French left fuming at the Johnson government's frequent readiness to compare the speed of the vaccine rollout earlier in the year in Britain with the much slower inoculation programs in France and the rest of Europe.
British ministers this week accused France of having stolen – earlier this year - five million coronavirus vaccine doses manufactured in Holland but destined for Britain. They say Macron worked with EU chiefs to divert the large batch of Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs to France. British government officials told Britain's The Sun newspaper that the diversion was "outrageous" and could have cost lives, if Britain had not managed to secure Pfizer vaccines.
And the two governments have bickered over Australia's decision last month to abandon a $66 billion deal to buy 12 French diesel-electric submarines and to purchase instead at least eight much more sophisticated nuclear-powered attack boats from Britain and America.
France's defense minister cancelled scheduled talks with her British counterpart as the submarine row reverberated and amid accusations from Paris that Britain had been "opportunistic" and underhanded. Johnson responded blithely by saying in Franglais, "I just think it's time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prenez un grip [get a grip] about all this and donnez-moi un break [give me a break]."
With next year's French presidential election looming and the British prime minister under mounting economic pressure, both Macron and Johnson have domestic political reasons to prolong the duel, fear some political commentators. "French President Emmanuel Macron faces a tough and unpredictable election in six months' time, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is looking for distractions and scapegoats as reality starts to contradict his cheerful bluster about a plucky, triumphant, stand-alone Brexit Britain," John Lichfield, a former foreign editor of Britain's Independent newspaper, noted in a commentary for the Politico.eu news site.
"Both countries are obsessed with each other, for different reasons, and often with silly outcomes," tweeted Jonathan Eyal, an associate director of the Royal United Services Institute, a London defense think tank.
Ten EU member states including Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium have joined the French in signing a joint statement that calls on Britain to abide by the terms of the Brexit trade agreement and to ensure "continuity" for French fishing fleets. But the joint statement also called for a negotiated solution and avoided any mention of retaliation.
Privately, EU officials say they are determined to ensure the Anglo-French fishing dispute does not escalate and are playing down the prospect of the bloc as a whole agreeing to retaliatory action. Their priority is on resolving a bigger dispute between the EU and Britain over Northern Ireland.