LONDON – France’s president offered Britain extra time for negotiations on Monday to try to reach a compromise on a troubling post-Brexit fishing spat, hours ahead of a threatened French blockade of British ships and trucks.
France has threatened to bar British boats from some of its ports and tighten checks on boats and trucks carrying British goods if more French vessels aren’t licensed to fish in U.K. waters by Tuesday. Paris has also suggested it might restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands, which are heavily dependent on French electricity.
The French government had said the port blockade would begin at midnight Monday if no compromise was found. But late in the day, French President Emmanuel Macron's office said talks would continue this week and no measures would be taken until at least through Thursday.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Glasgow, Scotland, where he is attending an international climate conference, Macron said the discussions center on a proposal he made to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after they met at the G-20 meeting in Rome on Sunday.
“I asked the British to come back to us tomorrow with other propositions,” Macron said. “We will see where we are at the end of day tomorrow.”
The British government has said throughout the long-running dispute that it is not engaged in a negotiation, and it is entirely up to France to end the conflict, which centers on fishing licenses in the English Channel. The spat has turned into a big sticking point in EU-Britain relations after the U.K. left the bloc earlier this year.
The British government welcomed France's move to delay its ultimatum.
“As we have said consistently, we are ready to continue intensive discussions on fisheries, including considering any new evidence to support the remaining license applications," the U.K. government said in a statement. “We welcome France’s acknowledgement that in-depth discussions are needed to resolve the range of difficulties in the U.K.-EU relationship.”
The two countries said Britain's Brexit minister, David Frost, and French Europe Minister Clement Beaune would hold talks in Paris on Thursday.
Earlier Monday, the European Commission said it had called a meeting involving officials from Britain, France and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which are self-governing British Crown dependencies with control over their own territorial waters, “to allow for a swift solution on the outstanding issues” in the dispute over French fishing boats’ access to British waters.
The fishing spat has escalated into a major U.K.-French dispute, with both sides accusing each other of contravening the Brexit trade deal that the U.K. signed when it left the EU.
Paris says authorities in the Channel Islands and Britain have denied permits to French boats that have fished in waters where they have long sailed, scooping up lobster, sea snails, sea bream and other fish from the English Channel. Britain says it has granted 98% of applications from EU vessels, a proportion that French authorities have questioned.
Britain says a few dozen boats have not been given permits because they have not shown the required paperwork to back up their applications.
“We absolutely stand ready to grant more licenses should the requisite evidence be provided," said the British prime minister's spokesman, Max Blain.
As Monday's talks took place, anxious French fishing crews unloaded scallops on the French coast near the British island of Jersey, tense about what the coming hours would bring.
Jersey, which is only 14 miles off the coast of France, issued 49 temporary licenses to French boats. The government of Jersey said the vessels will be able to fish in Jersey waters until Jan. 31 to “grant time” for further data that is necessary for it issue permanent licenses.
Fishing is a tiny industry economically, but one that looms large symbolically for both Britain and France, which have long and cherished maritime traditions. Since the start of the year, both sides have control of their waters, subject to the post-Brexit trade deal.
Dimitri Rogoff, who heads the regional fishing committee on the French coast near Jersey, said French crews have been providing paperwork for 10 months. He said he didn’t understand why Britain is making a big deal over “20 or 30 boats,” and that he hoped that the French government’s threats could “incite our British friends to be a bit more conciliatory.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned France that the U.K. will “not roll over” in the face of what she termed “unreasonable” threats from Paris.
“The French need to withdraw those threats, otherwise we will use the dispute resolution mechanism in the EU deal to take action," Truss told BBC radio. “We’re simply not going to roll over in the face of these threats.”
Macron noted that the dispute stemmed from Britain's decision to leave the EU, saying, “‘Get Brexit Done’ wasn’t my motto.”
While Macron said it was important to defend the French fishing industry, he expressed hope for a negotiated solution so that the countries could work together on other problems.
“The United Kingdom and European Union have so many challenges — climate change, technological change, the cohesion of our nations, geopolitics,” Macron said.
Pylas reported from London. Angela Charlton in Paris and Jill Lawless in Glasgow contributed.