Did Macron win the Brexit fish war?

3 November 2021

7:25 PM

3 November 2021

7:25 PM

Who is winning the fish war? Will gentlemen in England still a-bed think themselves accursed they were not there?

This morning, the war looked rather, forgive me, fishy. France has suspended until Thursday its threats to disrupt the Channel Tunnel. Boris declared he would make no concessions. His bellicose promise came immediately after the UK and Channel Islands handed the French 100 more fishing permits.

Maybe it will hot up. Maybe not. French-bashing is flourishing at least. Jacob Rees-Mogg has pronounced the French to be always grumpy in October, the anniversary of Agincourt and Trafalgar. And he’s being predictably reflected in Brit-bashing from Paris, dragging out the Marquis de Ximenès’s complaint about perfidious Albion.

Is this it? In the lengthy history of Anglo-French naval engagements, this one has been a disappointment. Not a shot fired. Even the Russians did better than the French, sinking much of the North Sea fishing fleet in 1905 (albeit by accident).

Instead, all we have is a promise that negotiations will continue. Perhaps the negotiators need more time to craft a text allowing each side to declare victory with a straight face.

Whether Boris Johnson can get away with declaring a win, Macron having already won 45 more permits for the Breton scallop men and 50 more for their colleagues in Boulogne, I cannot say. Probably. It’s odd that anyone should really care. Fishing is very many decimal places away from being economically significant in the UK.

But from the southern side of the channel, Macron looks as if he’s done well. Tantrum diplomacy has worked well for him. Politically, it could hardly have been better timed for the president. A tough election looming, this allows him to claim credit not just for saving the Breton scallop men but to claim extra points for putting the United Kingdom in its place, which is never a vote-loser here.

A few weeks ago, Macron was looking battered and bruised. Humiliated by the Anglo-Saxons over submarines. Furious with the Swiss who had rejected his Rafale fighter jets. Angry with Britain over Northern Ireland. Rowing with Algeria over colonialism.

Now the French president appears seigneur over all he surveils. He’s about to assume the presidency of the European Council, where he will be capable of endless mischief. There’s a new bounce to his step, evident in the photos of him in Rome and Glasgow. At the G20 in Rome, Biden groveled to him, claiming he’d known nothing about the Aukus submarine deal. Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia, was collaterally humiliated, accused by Macron of being a liar.

By the time the circus arrived in Glasgow, Boris had apparently caved and the new fishing permits were being granted. Macron said he wouldn’t close the Channel Tunnel to search every lorry for ham sandwiches. We’re at status quo ante. The French and the rest can fish British waters much as they did before Brexit, and British boats can land their catches in France. The French will probably release the seized British trawler (the British-registered, Belgian-built Cornelis Gert Jan, owned by Canadians and captained by an Irishman). The UK will not take France to court, or impose ‘rigorous controls’ on EU (i.e. French) fishing boats, not that this was ever likely since the Royal Navy has barely a skeletal fisheries protection capability. Macron won’t turn off the electricity connectors. The EU will heave a sigh of relief.

Jean-Francis Pécresse, a quintessentially establishment French journalist, writing this week in Les Échos, the French business daily, says the dispute has been entirely the fault of Albion, ‘with all the perfidy of which she is capable.’ The UK is no longer a member of the EU yet continues to be a troublemaker, he complains. ‘This cannot go on any longer, when the Union already has enough to do with its eastern flank.’

Meanwhile from London the Sun declared Macron’s, ‘Le surrender,’ Laura Kuenssberg tweeted that the French have ‘stepped back,’ the Mail reported ministers ‘hailing victory’ and the Express declared, ‘Win for Boris! Macron BACKS DOWN in fishing row – changes deadline after Truss masterstroke.’

Perhaps a clearer picture of who won and who lost the Fish war might emerge in days to come. Perhaps the current truce will hold. Perhaps not. It seems from here Macron’s got what he wanted. Winner? Losers? It’s not necessarily in the interest of anyone to clarify the point. The jingoistic media are entirely predictable and it is simply more convenient to let everyone claim victory and tuck in to a nourishing plate of Coquilles Saint-Jacques, prepared with a dash of olive oil, garlic, a splash of Grenache and a pinch of spices.

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