Fourteen EU member states are preparing to issue a joint declaration accusing the British government of risking “significant economic and social damage” to their fishing communities, as wider relations appear close to breaking point.
In the statement, seen by the Guardian, France, Belgium, Ireland, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Cyprus, Portugal, Denmark, Italy, Lithuania, Sweden, Malta and Latvia will call for the UK to act “in the spirit and the letter” of the Brexit deal struck last Christmas Eve.
The governments of the UK and Jersey, a British crown dependency, have infuriated the French government in recent weeks over the reduced numbers of licences given out to small boat owners who fish in coastal waters. In a pointed sign of solidarity, the member states will make a thinly veiled threat about the likely impact on future EU-UK fisheries negotiations if the UK does not rethink its stance.
The development comes at a febrile time in the EU-UK relationship, as Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commissioner responsible for Brexit, prepares to table proposals on improving the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, warned on Monday that the EU was close to the end of the road with the UK over the Northern Ireland protocol, accusing David Frost, the Brexit minister, of trying to undermine serious attempts to solve the problem.
Coveney said he had spoken to Šefčovič on Sunday as the final touches were being made to Wednesday’s announcements. They had agreed there would come a point when the EU would say “enough, we cannot compromise any more,” Coveney said.
The EU has been dismayed by Frost’s insistence that any revision of the protocol must deal with the continued role of the European court of justice in enforcing the bloc’s legal acquis in Northern Ireland.
“The negotiating strategy Lord Frost has adopted so far this year, effectively, is to wait for the EU to come forward with compromise proposals; to bank those compromise proposals; say ‘they’re not enough’ and ask for more,” said Coveney. “This is the same pattern over and over again.”
The member states’ declaration on fishing access avoids repeating some of the extreme threats made by France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, over potential retaliation, including reducing energy supply to Jersey.
It is understood that the inclusion of more diplomatic language was the price set by some of the member state governments for signing up to the statement.
But the French government was keen to illustrate that it has the support of other EU fishing nations and that there could be backing for reprisals through the trade agreement, including tariffs on UK fish exports or in future fishing talks.
Paris is furious that a third of French boats applying to fish in Jersey’s waters have been turned down by the island’s government. Meanwhile the UK government provided only 12 of 47 French vessels with permits for its coastal waters.
The member states’ statement notes that the trade and cooperation agreement signed by Boris Johnson guarantees “the continuity of access for European vessels within an equitable framework ensuring respect for the sovereignty”, and calls for the UK and Jersey to return to rethink their decisions.
They warn that a failure to do so could jeopardise future EU-UK negotiations over mutual access to waters with potential repercussions for the British fishing industry.
“Such a response is necessary in order to approach in an orderly manner the forthcoming negotiations on fisheries with our British partner, whether it is on shared quotas, on technical measures, on the landing obligation or regarding the preservation of a fisheries level playing field, avoiding any unilateral interpretation of the trade and cooperation agreement,” the statement says.
The UK and Jersey have said they have acted in a “pragmatic” manner in issuing fishing vessels with permits on the basis of evidence of having previously operated in the coastal waters. But the EU member states accuse the UK and Jersey governments of setting unfair conditions.
“In particular, we note that the United Kingdom requires evidence of geolocation for vessels under 12 metres, whereas such evidence is not provided for in the trade and cooperation agreement and fishermen are not required to have it under EU rules,” the statement says. “The majority of the fleets concerned are small-scale fishing fleets, dependent on narrow maritime zones with no possibility of moving their activity, and therefore the failure to resolve these matters [is] likely to cause significant economic and social damage to the communities that depend on them.”
It is understood that the French minister for the seas, Annick Girardin, organised the declaration.