France is threatening to push for EU legal action against Britain if it does not show a “sign of goodwill” in the post-Brexit fishing row by a Friday deadline set by the EU, while the European Commission has said it expects the dispute to be resolved by midnight.
France’s European Affairs Minister, Clement Beaune, echoed earlier threats to ask the European Commission to launch legal proceedings against the UK if it failed to grant more licences to French fishermen.
But he also suggested the talks could be extended past the deadline as long as the UK shows goodwill.
“If the British say today ‘we’ll give you – and this isn’t a scientific number – a few dozen extra licences as a gesture of good faith to show that the dialogue is bearing fruit and we’re interested in continuing,’ we’ll take that into account and make an evaluation with the European Commission and perhaps we’ll continue.”
But if Britain refuses to budge on the roughly 100 outstanding licences, France will ask the commission at the weekend to announce the launch of legal proceedings, Mr Beaune said.
He said: “A legal procedure does not just involve papers and courts, it’s also measures, for example customs measures, that Europe can take collectively to tell the British in certain sectors ‘since you do not respect the agreement, some of your products are not recognised’.”
Mr Beaune also accused the Prime Minister of trying to isolate France in the row.
He said: “(Boris Johnson) told himself he could isolate the French and divide the Europeans. He didn’t manage and we have re-mobilised.”
The European Commission has said the dispute must be settled by December 10 – but Downing Street said on Thursday it did not recognise the cut-off point.
Mr Beaune said the UK Government’s comment was “surprising”.
“It’s not really a sign of trust,” he said.
Meanwhile, the European Commission suggested talks could still conclude on Friday.
Asked about the state of the negotiations, Vivian Loonela, the Commission’s spokeswoman on maritime affairs and fisheries, said: “Where we are is that on both sides – with the European Commission and with the UK – we have agreed that we have this mutual commitment to end these discussions with a successful outcome today.”
She said the commission does not use the term “ultimatum”, but that negotiators will “try to finish these discussions today”.
The main source of contention is the number of licences to fish in waters around the British coastline for smaller French vessels that can prove they operated there before Brexit.
France says Britain has not handed out enough licences to its fishermen, while the UK Government has insisted applications have been granted to those who have the correct documentation.
France’s maritime minister, Annick Girardin, said on Thursday that if the deadlock remained by Friday night, France would request a meeting of the partnership council, which oversees the implementation of the Brexit agreement, to “note the UK’s failure to respect its signature”.
“If that is not satisfactory, we ask that litigation proceedings be opened by the European Commission,” Ms Girardin told a senatorial committee.
She said the proceedings could take “many months” but that “France will never give up its rights”.
When asked about the negotiations over fishing licences, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs referred to a written statement from a minister at the department, Victoria Prentis, which said that trilateral talks with EU and Norway on jointly managed stocks were fruitful, but failed to refer to the fishing row specifically.