The UK and the EU’s negotiating teams have been locked in intensified talks for weeks now. Today, the two sides are negotiating in Brussels for a crunch round of talks, with EU leaders warning of the need to make “big progress” to avert a possible no deal by the end of the week. Despite optimism at the start of November, both sides say daily meetings have produced little progress on the fundamental blockages that have dogged an agreement since the start of the year.
Fishing, championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, remains one of the sticking points in the talks.
Even before the negotiations on a future trade deal started, the French government made it clear to the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier that he had to push for stronger commitments on regulatory alignments and access to UK fishing waters in return for maintaining free trade.
As he arrived at a summit of EU leaders last month, Mr Macron said: “In no case shall our fishermen be sacrificed for Brexit.
“If these conditions are not met, it’s possible we won’t have a deal. If the right terms can’t be found at the end of these discussions, we’re ready for a no deal for our future relations.”
In an exclusive interview with Express.co.uk, former Ukip MP Douglas Carswell shed light on the real reason behind the French leader’s aggressive stance.
He said: “French fishermen are a small but very active lobby group within France.
“A bit like French farmers, they have a clout, a political power beyond their actual numbers.
“I can understand why Macron is playing hardball. He is not doing too well in terms of popularity in those fishing regions at the moment and bashing the Brits never plays badly.
“However, fundamentally, no self-respecting country can agree to the terms he is seeking, and I think he knows that.”
Mr Carswell added: “He is worried about getting re-elected, that is for sure.
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“Like so many French Presidents he came in with really high hopes and to be fair to him, he has done something absolutely right in the way he responded to terrorist attacks.
“But, fundamentally, Macron is doing what all French Presidents have done with the overbearing nature of the French regulatory state.
“Trying to stimulate the French economy is a very difficult task and to have the French fisherman antagonising him at the same time must not be easy.”
In a recent report, the head of London-based think-tank Euro Intelligence Wolfgang Munchau echoed Mr Carswell’s claims, arguing that with his Brexit fishing stance, the French President might be fighting for his political life.
He wrote: “As in the UK, the fishing industry’s economic contribution is small in France.
“Total sales were around €2billion (£1.8billion) in 2016, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics show that less than 14,000 people were employed in the fishing sector in 2018. Employment in fishing has fallen by eight percent since 2011. But fishing, like agriculture, is symbolically important in France. And northern French fishermen take the majority of their catch from British waters.
“Macron might be worried about Xavier Bertrand, a high-profile former member of Les Républicains and potential 2022 candidate who is close with the industry.”
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He continued: “Bertrand is president of the Hauts-de-France region. He served as health minister under Jacques Chirac and labour minister under Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Last month, he attended the general assembly of the Coopérative Maritime Etaploise, where he called for arm-wrestling with the UK in fisheries negotiations.
“More good optics for him. Bertrand has recently been spotted in meetings with a string of senior right-wing political figures, including LR [The Republicans] President Christian Jacob. Rachida Dati supports his candidacy, and Le Journal du Dimanche reports that he will meet with Nicolas Sarkozy next month. With the help of LR deputy Julien Dive, he has also been meeting with parliamentarians this week, and is set to meet with senators next week. His think tank La Manufacture has been mobilised to develop an election campaign strategy, and a recent Ifop poll put Bertrand at the top of the list of potential right-wing candidates.”
Trust in Mr Macron is continuing to plummet amid the pandemic.
According to a poll published in October, around 62 percent of French people admitted to not trusting their President.
This result is six points up from the previous poll carried out in August, while trust in the government dropped five points.
The Elabe poll for BFMTV, which asked 1,000 people in France aged 18 and over, also found that nearly one in two people (47 percent) think the President is not taking “enough precautions” to limit the spread of the virus.
With the 2022 French presidential election nearing, these latest figures are clearly a worry for the En Marche leader.