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UK Says "It's Now Up To Them" In Fishing Row With France After Johnson and Macron Meeting

4 min read

Distance remains between the U.K. and France over fishing rights despite a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit of leaders in Rome.

According to a read out from the Elysee Palace after a 30 minute meeting on Sunday morning, the leaders said they would work to find a solution that would lead to a de-escalation. The palace said Macron told Johnson he expected the UK to play by the rules and expected ‘seriousness’ and respect between the leaders.

However, the Prime Minister's spokesperson suggested distance remained between both sides. "The French government has made a series of threats about what they will do. It's now up to them to see if they want to resile from that. Our stance has not changed in that we will work within the realms of the Brexit agreement," they said.

Asked if Macron gave any assurance that France is stepping back from the Tuesday deadline before Paris imposes port restrictions and border checks, the PM's spokesperson said it "would be for the French to decide they want to step away", adding "and we would welcome that".

The meeting followed an exchange of Twitter threads on the subject by Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, and Clement Beaune, France's Europe minister.

Earlier, Johnson suggested the UK could launch legal action against France. The Prime Minister did not rule out triggering the dispute mechanism under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement as early as next week.

Late last week France seized control of a UK fishing boat that it believed was “not respecting the rules” around fishing rights. On Saturday morning Johnson said he believed France could be in breach of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement struck as part of the Brexit deal. 

The French minister for European affairs Clement Beaune had raised tensions on Friday when he said that all French ports would be closed to British boats, aside from a few exceptions. There have also been threats to raise the price of electricity that it supplies to the British Channel Islands. 

French Prime Minister Jean Castex then raised the political temperature further with an explosive letter to European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, leaked to Politico, which said the UK must stick to its legal commitments and that the EU should demonstrate it was better to be part of the bloc. On Sunday, the Prime Minister asked Macron for an explanation, according to his spokesperson.

Castex insisted that the bloc should act against Britain over the granting of fishing licences, which the French claim has been too limited post-Brexit. France claims they have only been given half the licences they are entitled to. 

“Leaving the union is more damaging than remaining in it,” he wrote in his letter.

Johnson confirmed he had seen the letter, and acknowledged that there was "some turbulence in the relationship" with France. 

"If one of our partners decides to breach the Trade and Cooperation agreement we struck then obviously that’s a matter we’ll have to pursue,” Johnson continued. 

He said he wouldn’t rule out trying to use the dispute mechanism under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to try and resolve the issue, and hinted that the UK could retaliate in such a way as early as this week. 

"Of course not I don't rule that out," Johnson told Sky News in Rome.  

"But what I think everybody wants to see it cooperation between the European allies and Emmanuel Macron."

Unhappiness around the fishing licenses has been building since the beginning of the year when post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement set out that fishing arrangements between the EU and UK would be run through a licensing scheme to enable access to each other’s waters. 

But Johnson seemed determined to redirect focus from this diplomatic row to issues of climate chage, and cooperation between world leaders this week to strike deals to halt a looming environmental catastrophe. 

"All those issues are dwarfed by the agenda that Emmanuel Macron and I and Angela Merkel and Mario Draghi and all the leaders, Joe Biden, that we face today. We must tackle climate change," Johnson added. 

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted US President Joe Biden at the French embassy to the Vatican in Rome earlier in the summit, a meeting which saw the pair publicly patch up relations over the AUKUS nuclear powered submarine deal between Britain, the US and Australia.

Biden admitted the handling of the three-way partnership had been "clumsy", acknowledging it had effectively swiped the billion dollar contract to build Australia's new fleet of submarines away from France.

Johnson chose the Coloseum in Rome as the backdrop to his media interviews and said said he wanted to instead focus on the ‘threat that humanity faces’ when it comes to the planet.

“Here we are in the Colliseum of Vespagian, completed by Titus I think, and what more perfect metaphor could there be to the risk to humanity of civilisation basically going backwards," he said. 

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