France today denied a seized British trawler has been freed as ministers hailed Emmanuel Macron ‘stepping back’ from his retaliation threats in the bitter fishing row.
Environment Secretary George Eustice claimed the scallop vessel Cornelis Gert Jan ‘has now been released’ after being accused of fishing without a licence and detained at Le Havre.
But the vessel is still at the Normandy port and French prosecutors insist the situation remains ‘subject to legal negotiations’ – with a deposit of around £125,000 due before she can return home.
The confusion came after Mr Macron said he would go back to the negotiating table with Britain rather than follow through on his extraordinary sabre-rattling.
He has shelved threats to block British trawlers from landing their catches in French ports, reduce electricity to Jersey and tighten customs checks until at least Thursday.
But despite the lull in hostilities, French fishing chiefs have warned trawlermen to stay away from British waters in case the spat blows up again.
Mr Eustice told Sky News this morning: ‘We welcome the fact France has stepped back from the threats it was making last Wednesday.
‘We’ve always said we want to de-escalate this and always said we have an ever-open door to discuss any further evidence France or the EU might have on any additional vessels they’d like to have licensed.
‘France has clearly taken a decision not to implement some of the decisions they threatened last Wednesday, we very much welcome that but I think there’s going to be a very important meeting on Thursday between Lord frost and his opposite number, not just on fisheries but a wider range of issues as well.’
At the Cop26 summit yesterday, Boris Johnson and Mr Macron shared a frosty greeting on stage in front of other world leaders
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the scallop vessel Cornelis (pictured) ‘has now been released’ after being accused of fishing without a licence and detained at Le Havre
On the situation with the Cornelis, Mr Eustice said: ‘I understand that vessel has now been released and I think there’s going to need to be some further discussions, clearly there was an administrative error at some point.
‘We haven’t quite got to the bottom of that but that vessel I understand has been released.’
On the surface the UK had refused to budge in the dispute over fishing rights, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss adamant Britain would ‘not roll over’.
However, there have been gradually more being granted, with UK authorities insisting more evidence has been supplied that they used waters before Brexit.
Mr Macron told reporters at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow last night: ‘It is not while we are negotiating that we are going to impose sanctions.
‘Since this afternoon, discussions have resumed on the basis of a proposal I made to Prime Minister Johnson.
‘The talks need to continue. We’ll see where we are tomorrow at the end of the day, to see if things have really changed. The next few hours are important hours.’ He added: ‘I understood that the British were going to come back to us tomorrow with other proposals.’
France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, tweeted late last night that he would hold talks with Brexit minister Lord Frost on Thursday in Paris.
The close ally of Macron said any planned retaliatory measures would ‘not be applied before this meeting’.
France is furious at the UK and Jersey’s decision to turn down applications from a number of French vessels to fish in their waters.
The Elysee Palace had originally stood firm, saying that if Britain refused to give ground on the number of licences it issued to French fishermen, it would implement its threats to British trawlers, to Jersey and on customs checks.
Ms Truss said, should France act, the UK would take legal action under the UK-EU Brexit trade deal, while Downing Street said it had ‘robust’ contingency plans in place.
At the Cop26 summit yesterday, Boris Johnson and Mr Macron shared a frosty greeting on stage in front of other world leaders.
The day before, at a G20 meeting in Rome, Mr Johnson had told the French leader it was up to Paris to step back.
Despite a seeming lull in hostilities, a French fishing chief last night warned trawlermen to stay away from British waters in case the row blows up again.
Olivier Lepretre, chairman of the powerful northern French fisheries committee, said: ‘I fear there might be some tit-for-tat measures. We need an agreement that works for both French and British fishermen.’
Mr Eustice told Sky News this morning: ‘We welcome the fact France has stepped back from the threats it was making last Wednesday.’
Britain says it has granted licences to 98 per cent of EU vessels that have asked to operate in British waters.
But the dispute centres on access for boats of under 12 metres wishing to fish in the UK’s six-to-12-nautical-mile zone.
Paris was angry that the UK originally granted only 12 licences out of 47 bids for smaller vessels, a figure which has now risen.
Ms Truss told the BBC yesterday: ‘We allocated the fishing licences completely in line with what is in the trade agreement and the French need to withdraw those threats.
‘Otherwise we will use the dispute resolution mechanism in the EU deal to take action.’
A senior UK Government source said last night: ‘Our position on fishing licences remains unchanged.
‘We are in solutions mode and we want to resolve these issues consensually.’
What is the fishing row between the UK and France about?
– How did Brexit spark the fishing feud?
When the UK left the EU, it also left the common fisheries policy, which since 1970 has allowed the bloc’s members access to all European waters outside the first 12 nautical miles of each country’s coastline.
The Brexit deal outlined how EU boats could continue to fish in UK waters, but British fishermen would get a greater share of the catch from those domestic waters.
Most of the share is being transferred to the UK this year, and there will be annual negotiations to decide how the catch is shared out going forwards.
– Why has this inflamed tensions with France?
The rollout of the post-Brexit arrangements has caused a row, with Paris accusing the UK of failing to grant permission to every eligible French boat to fish in British waters.
But the UK is adamant that it is following the terms of the Brexit deal which requires trawlers to provide historical GPS data to prove they worked in those waters before Brexit.
Some vessels have been unable to provide that data which has seen their applications for a licence be rejected.
The Government has insisted 98 per cent of all EU fishing licence requests have been granted but France believes it is being shortchanged.
– What is France threatening to do?
French ministers have warned they will block British boats from some French ports and tighten checks on vessels travelling between France and the UK if the fishing licence dispute is not resolved.
France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, told French TV news channel CNews previously: ‘We have been extremely patient. Our fishermen have been extremely responsible. And so, from November 2, it’s over. We will engage in dialogue if the British want to, but we are taking retaliatory measures.’
What does Britain say?
Ministers have stressed that it is ready to grant more permits when boats can provide historical evidence.
The government has warned that French reprisals would be a breach of the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, and they are ready to trigger the dispute mechanisms to punish France.
Is the situation starting to cool?
Last night Emmanuel Macron pushed back the deadline until at least Thursday, saying action will not be taken while negotiations are ongoing.
Brexit minister Lord Frost and Mr Beaune are due to meet in Paris on Thursday.
– Why was the British trawler detained?
The scallop vessel Cornelis was ordered to divert to the port of Le Havre after the French authorities said it was fishing in French waters without a licence.
The French said that another British trawler had been fined for obstruction after refusing to allow police to board to carry out checks.
The owner of the Cornelis, Macduff Shellfish, said the vessel had been fishing legally in French waters and called on the British Government to protect the rights of British fishermen.