Britain’s Brexit minister is due in Paris Thursday for talks on the fishing rights crisis that has further strained already tense relations between the two countries.
The meeting comes a day after a French court released a British trawler impounded for a week as part of the deepening dispute.
David Frost will sit down with French Europe Minister Clement Beaune to continue negotiations after several days of tense exchanges between the leaders of the two countries.
Frost is a staunch defender of Brexit while Beaune is a close ally of President Emmanuel Macron, not shy of making clear his belief that France should not pay for what he sees as Britain’s mistake of leaving the EU.
The two have also sparred on social media. Their meeting is set to be held behind closed doors and no press conference is planned.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said there would also be a European Commission meeting on the issue during a visit by Frost on Friday, but this is yet to be confirmed by Brussels.
– Free to go –
On Wednesday evening, the impounded trawler, the Cornelis Gert Jan, left the French northern port of Le Havre after receiving permission to leave, an AFP correspondent said.
Its captain, Jondy Ward, still faces charges of gathering two tons of scallops in French waters without a proper licence.
But the lawyer for the ship’s captain, Mathieu Croix, told AFP a court in the nearby city of Rouen had allowed it to leave without posting any financial guarantee.
The court rejected the state’s demand that the trawler remain impounded until a 150,000 euro ($175,000) bond had been deposited, he said.
“It is a good decision, of a kind that will allow the tensions to drop,” said the lawyer. “French justice is independent from political pressure,” he added.
Ward, who was present in court for the hearing, afterwards joined his seven crew members to begin the journey back, smiling for journalists on the shore.
The captain still faces a trial in Le Havre on August 11, 2022 on charges of non-authorised fishing in French waters by a boat from outside the European Union, which carry a maximum fine of 75,000 euros ($87,000).
– ‘All options on table’ –
The dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights has strained already troubled relations between Paris and London following Britain’s exit from the European Union and has threatened to escalate into a full-blown trade war.
While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday made it clear that London’s position had not changed there are signs both sides favour diplomacy in a bid to avoid the situation worsening.
Attal emphasised that “all options were on the table” regarding future sanctions after Macron put off implementing trade sanctions to give the talks a chance.
France has threatened to ban British boats from unloading their catches at French ports and to subject all British imports to inspections.
Under a deal agreed by Britain and the EU late last year, European fishing vessels can continue to ply UK waters if they can prove they operated there in the past.
But dozens of French boats have had their applications to operate in the UK’s fish-rich waters rejected.
The total volumes affected are tiny in terms of overall France-UK bilateral trade.
But analysts say Macron is keen to take a hard line against Johnson as he eyes re-election in 2022 polls while the British premier is also keen to talk tough in the wake of Brexit.