“We have much bigger fish to fry.”
This was Boris Johnson’s attempt to joke about the quarrel between the UK and France over Channel fishing rights, as he is trying to twist the arms of world leaders to make bigger and bolder commitments to help slow climate change.
He is not doing this just because of his own belief that the most powerful countries in the world are running out of time to make a real difference to the real threats future generations face from climate change.
But progress is vital if it is to achieve political success in the next fortnight, when it will host nearly every country in the world at the United Nations Environment Conference in Glasgow, which will now begin in a few hours.
Here’s a reminder of what’s at stake when the diplomatic roadshow moves to Scotland.
The prime minister’s team says they have no desire to ignite hostilities between the UK and our closest neighbor. Yet the UK is increasingly fed up with what it now sees as a role model for the French government in the dispute over fishing rights.
Government sources speak of frustration with French rhetoric and French threats, to increase extra customs controls on Channel trade, to deny British boats access to French ports or to peg the possibility of interrupting the supply of energy to Jersey.
And, as an insider suggests, the UK government increasingly believes that its French counterpart “is not acting in good faith.”
But French frustrations have also escalated, with a deadline set for the UK on Tuesday to review its stance on fishing permits. And across the EU there has also been irritation over the way the UK is trying to change the other part of the legal deal it signed with Brussels, remember all the crosswords on the Ireland deals from North.
Some point to the symmetrical frustration: the EU is bothered by the British interpretation of that protocol. The UK is irritated by the way France is dealing with fishing permit agreements.
Upcoming French elections
If the hypothetical French threats turn into real actions that could breach the legal terms of the trade deal with the EU, Boris Johnson’s Brexit Lieutenant Lord Frost made it clear today on social media that legal action against the whole block is an option.
At least it’s a diplomatic distraction. At worst it could tie the UK and the EU together in months of legal wrangling.
However, the time has not yet come for the UK and France to scream “see you in court”. If the UK activated the “dispute resolution mechanism”, there would first be a series of high-level talks to try to resolve the problem and, if they fail, both sides would appoint their own lawyers who would then try to figure out who is involved. the wrong.
Interestingly, this would not be a trial covered by the European Court, but a trial trial that the two sides sweated on last year.
There are opportunities for both sides to back out. Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron will meet one on one tomorrow. The prime minister appealed to the head of the EU Council, Ursula von der Leyen, to help him solve it today. But even if in the next few days the two sides pull back this time, there is an air of resignation among some in the government regarding the politics at stake here too.
There appear to be practical problems with fishing rights in the Channel. But President Macron faces elections in the spring and an insider suggests that until that contest is over there will be an inevitable “ebb and flow” in verbal diplomatic grievances over the UK.
What is unclear, however, is whether the rhetorical arguments surrounding the quarrel will turn into something more serious and real. The tension perhaps dwarfed by the gravity of the climate challenge and Boris Johnson’s determination to create momentum.
But the quarrel with France is not something he can, or will, simply ignore.
- Boris Johnson
- Fish industry
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