Bitterness Over Brexit Lies Behind Fraying France-U.K. Relations

A recent dispute over fishing rights illuminates a broader and more fundamental disagreement over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.,

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LONDON — On its face, the nasty squabble that broke out last week between Britain and France was over the fishing rights of a few dozen French trawlers plying British waters off the island of Jersey. As with many rivalrous neighbors, however, the root causes of the feud run far deeper.

Britain and France have been at odds ever since Britain left the European Union two years ago. They have quarreled over the safety of a British coronavirus vaccine and a submarine alliance that united Britain, Australia and the United States but left an outraged France on the sidelines. At one point, the fishing fracas prompted both to deploy naval ships to Jersey, leading a London tabloid to bluster, “Our New Trafalgar.”

Domestic politics is playing a part. For Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, ginning up a cross-channel dispute appeals to his pro-Brexit base and is a noisy distraction in a season of fuel and food shortages. For President Emmanuel Macron, the tensions are useful in his bid for re-election in France, given that he faces a challenge from the nationalist right.

Accusations of bullying and bad faith could also give Britain an excuse to rip up the trade pact it negotiated with the European Union for Northern Ireland — something it has been spoiling to do ever since Mr. Johnson and Mr. Macron got into a row over sausages at a summit meeting in Cornwall last June.

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French fishermen off the British island of Jersey in May. Their right to fish in the waters of the coast is at the center of a diplomatic dispute. Credit…Sameer Al-Doumy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At its heart, the clash, which diplomats said was the most bitter they could recall, is over who will write the first draft of history: France is determined to show that Brexit has not worked; Britain is desperate to show that it has.

“It’s about much more than fish,” said Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to France. “It is essentially still about Brexit.”

France, by reacting so vehemently to what it claims is Britain’s refusal to abide by the provisions on fishing in its post-Brexit agreement with Brussels, is sending a message to London that leaving the European Union is not going to be cost free, he said.

“The French have been open in saying, ‘You can’t have the same benefits if you’re not in the E.U,'” Mr. Ricketts said. “One of their biggest grievances is that the Johnson government wants to have its cake and eat it, too.”

At the same time, Brexit has sundered the bonds that held Britain and France together as partners in the European project, injecting a more competitive element into their relationship and increasing the temptation to use each other as a foil.

Sylvie Bermann, who recently served as France’s ambassador to Britain, likened Brexit to a divorce and said it was only natural that it would take time for the wounds to heal. Each side is nursing those wounds in different ways.

Mr. Johnson, she said, has made France a scapegoat for problems that were aggravated by Brexit, like the shortage of truck drivers that has caused filling stations to run out of gas. Mr. Macron, who was stung when Australia jilted France for the submarine alliance with Britain and the United States, wants to show that France is stronger inside the European Union than it would be alone, as Britain is.

“We didn’t ask them to become a third country,” Ms. Bermann said. “We would have liked them to stay. They made their choice, and we respect it. But now they can’t enjoy both the advantages and a total freedom.”

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A shortage of truck drivers in England has led to fuel shortages across the country in September.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

In such a suspicious atmosphere, even routine disputes can quickly metastasize. The latest spat involves licensing French boats to fish in waters up to six miles from the English and Channel Island coasts, where the French have fished for hundreds of years. The total value of the catch in question is 6 million euros ($6.9 million) a year, less than a rounding error in France’s $2.6 trillion economic output.

But the fishing industry has a symbolism out of proportion to its size. For two proud countries that are more alike than different — frenemies who have weathered the Norman Conquest, the Napoleonic Wars, and even Mr. Johnson’s mocking Franglais (“Donnez moi un break,” he said recently) — symbolism matters.

Mr. Macron threatened to retaliate by imposing stricter checks on trucks crossing from Britain to France, in what could rapidly escalate into a trade war. He held his fire after meeting Mr. Johnson in Rome last Sunday. The two agreed to try to work out a compromise, and on Thursday, Britain’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, met France’s minister for European affairs, Clement Beaune, for what Britain described as a chance “set out their positions and concerns.” They will meet again next week.

But the diplomatic encounters seem to matter less than the offstage theatrics. Before the supposedly positive meeting between Mr. Macron and Mr. Johnson, France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, wrote a sharp letter to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, urging her to hold Britain to its agreement.

It was important, Mr. Castex wrote, for Brussels to show “it is as damaging to leave the Union as to stay in it.”

British officials seized on that as proof that France wanted to punish Britain for Brexit. The French said the British deliberately mistranslated that line to make it more inflammatory, though some diplomats acknowledged that the French bore some blame for escalating the situation, with what Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, described as “very clumsy” wording.

The episode was revealing because it laid bare the “total lack of trust between the Europeans and Johnson,” he said.

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French fishermen protested off Jersey in May. Credit…Oliver Pinel, via Associated Press

Nowhere is that mistrust more palpable, diplomats said, than between Mr. Macron, a 43-year-old former banker, and Mr. Johnson, a 57-year-old onetime journalist. “In both London and Paris, there is a sense that the relationship will not get fixed as long as Macron is in the Elysee Palace and Johnson is in No. 10,” said Peter Westmacott, who preceded Mr. Ricketts as Britain’s ambassador to France.

Britain’s departure from the European Union was a particular blow Mr. Macron because it upset the power balance that had existed between the bloc’s three big states: Britain, France, and Germany. Now Mr. Macron is struggling to assert France’s leadership in a Europe dominated by Germany.

“France and Macron have made the E.U. such a central pillar of their domestic and foreign policy,” said Georgina Wright, a British expert on relations between France and Britain at the Institut Montaigne, a research organization in Paris. “It is very difficult for him to cooperate with the U.K. government which continues to have a very antagonistic tone toward the E.U.”

At home, Mr. Macron is leading in the polls but faces a robust challenge from the right. His main rivals all express skepticism about the European Union, though none argue for a split from the union. Eric Zemmour, a provocative far-right TV star and writer who has shot up to second place in most polls, has said that Britain won the battle of Brexit and argues for a stronger France within Europe. So does Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, who is polling third.

Confronted with these challenges, “Emmanuel Macron’s message is to assert that being a member of the union entails obligations and rights, and that France takes part in all aspects of European politics,” said Thibaud Harrois, an expert on French-British relations at the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle.

Unlike in Britain, however, where tensions with France preoccupy Downing Street and supply grist for headlines in pro-Conservative tabloids, Mr. Macron’s hard line toward Britain is mainly a political calculation. There is little evidence that anti-British sentiment galvanizes the broader population.

For London, however, the fights over fish augur a much larger battle over its relationship with the European Union. Britain is now expected to upend its agreement with Brussels over how to treat Northern Ireland, which awkwardly straddles the trading systems of Britain and the union.

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Police forces were present at a demonstration against the Northern Ireland Protocol in Belfast on Wednesday. Credit…Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Mr. Johnson claims the agreement has disrupted trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. The European Union has offered fixes but refused to make concessions that would threaten its single market.

Analysts now expect Mr. Johnson to trigger a clause that invalidates the deal sometime after the global climate summit in Scotland ends next week. Mr. Macron can be expected to push for a strong European Union counteroffensive, which is why a feud over fish in Jersey could spill over into a full-blown trade war.

“We’re looking at a substantial increase in tensions, and the French leg will be a major piece of it,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “After that, it becomes very messy legally, politically, economically.”

Mark Landler reported from London and Nori Onishi from Paris.

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