Post-Brexit protest by French fishermen adds to Channel tensions

Protesters blockade ports in northern France and obstruct Channel Tunnel

French fishermen blockaded traffic in the English Channel on Friday in a protest over post-Brexit rights that comes amid worsening tensions between the UK and France.

The protest began before dawn, with fishermen holding red flares aloft as they circled their boats off the coast of Saint Malo, a port in northern France, and stopped a British cargo vessel from docking.

Later on Friday, the relay passed to Calais and Ouistreham further along the coast, with six fishing boats from the port of Boulogne blocking access to the Calais port.

Other protesters used motor vehicles to block access to the Channel Tunnel for goods lorries, preventing them from boarding the rail shuttle to England.

Cars and trucks tailed back towards the motorway after fishermen put up barricades and lit smoke canisters at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Coquelles.

The UK government said it was hoping to keep any disruption to a minimum. "We're closely monitoring the situation and the actions of the French fishermen," a Downing Street spokesman said. "We look to the French authorities to ensure the free flow of traffic and trade to ensure the trade is not disrupted."

It coincides with the bitter fallout from the tragedy in the Channel on Wednesday, when 27 migrants died after attempting to reach Britain in an inflatable boat.

Paris reacted angrily to a letter made public by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday, in which he proposed returning migrants to France and conducting joint patrols of the French coast.

The response from the French government was to cancel an invitation UK Home Secretary Priti Patel to attend an emergency migration summit on Sunday.

It adds to months of tensions linked to Britain’s departure from the EU, which were worsened by a submarine deal between the UK, US and Australia.

The fishermen are angered by the UK’s failure, as they see it, to grant the access to British waters that was promised under a post-Brexit agreement.

Their grievances are shared by the French government, which says dozens of licenses are owed to its fishing industry, but Britain says it is honouring the agreement.

Gerard Romiti, chairman of the French national fisheries committee, described the protests as a warning shot against the “derisive and humiliating attitude of the English”.

“The UK must abide by the post-Brexit deal. Too many fishermen are still in the dark,” he said.

“We don't want handouts, we just want our licenses back,” he said, after the French government suggested compensation for the fishermen — a move which sparked fears it was backing down.

Dozens of French fishing boats are expected to block ferries from the UK at the ports of Saint-Malo, Calais and Ouistreham from midday.

Fishermen will try to use their cars to block the motorway leading to the Channel Tunnel, where goods lorries are carried on a railway shuttle.

The EU, which is locked in separate talks with Britain over special trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, has set a December 10 deadline to resolve the fishing dispute.

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said the UK was disappointed by the planned protests. He said Britain had issued almost 1,700 licenses to EU boats and invited fishermen to submit further evidence of their past ventures.

“It is obviously a matter for the French to ensure there are no illegal actions and that trade is not affected but we continue to monitor the situation closely,” he said.

Under the post-Brexit licensing agreement, Britain agreed to grant access to trawlers with an established record of fishing deep in its waters.

But France was outraged when the UK announced in September that only 12 out of a batch of 47 applications had been granted.

French authorities briefly seized a British trawler last month, and both sides have sent patrol vessels to waters off Jersey, a UK-controlled Channel Island.

The fishing industry is economically small but politically symbolic in both countries, and French President Emmanuel Macron is up for re-election next year.

Updated: November 26th 2021, 4:12 PM