Boris Johnson vowed to do “whatever is necessary” to protect British fishers, with French and EU vessels put on notice of “rigorous” checks when in British waters and even tariffs on goods if Paris acts on its recent threats.
As France prepared to act on its plan to tie up British goods in red tape at ports in a row over fishing licences, the prime minister said he intended to ask Emmanuel Macron to see past the “turbulence” in British-French relations.
Johnson, who will see the French president on Sunday at a G20 meeting in Rome, said France remained the UK’s “best, oldest, closest allies, friends and partners”. “There may be people on either side of the Channel who want to create the impression of disharmony, but I don’t think Emmanuel shares that perspective at all,” he added.
But Johnson confirmed that the UK was preparing to take “the appropriate action” after recent announcements from French ministers.
“I think on the particular issues we have, we are puzzled about what’s going on,” the prime minister said. “We fear that there may be a breach in terms of the trade cooperation agreement implicit in what’s happening and some of the things that are being said, and obviously we will stand by to take the appropriate action … We will do whatever is necessary to ensure UK interests.”
Earlier on Friday, David Frost, the UK Brexit minister, hit out at the “unjustified” measures that the French government has said it will impose from next Tuesday over the row about fishing access, during his meeting in London with the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.
Šefčovič was told that Downing Street would consider “launching dispute settlement proceedings”, under which retaliation could be possible should arbitration fail, and subject all EU vessels to “rigorous enforcement processes and checks”. Fisheries protection is carried out by both the maritime and coastguard agency and Royal Navy river-class patrol vessels.
The warning followed the French government’s announcement earlier this week that it will from Tuesday impose heightened customs and health checks on British goods, potentially impose a ban on boats landing fish, and scrutinise UK vessels’ security, environmental standards and crew.
The measures, to be enforced at the ports of Cherbourg, Granville, Barneville-Carteret, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Le Havre and Brest, will only be lifted if the UK and Jersey provide more licences for French vessels seeking to fish in their coastal waters, French ministers have said.
France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, has written to Šefčovič notifying the commission of the government’s intentions, urging Brussels to support its plans. A commission spokesperson said the measures were being examined to see if they were compliant with the EU-UK trade deal.
A UK government spokesperson said Lord Frost in his discussions with Šefčovič set out “concerns about the unjustified measures announced by France earlier this week to disrupt UK fisheries and wider trade, to threaten energy supplies, and to block further cooperation between the UK and the EU, for example on the Horizon research programme”.
Frost told Šefčovič that France’s actions would be in breach of the trade and cooperation agreement between the EU and UK, and that resolution or compensation would be sought through the levers in that deal.
The French ambassador to the UK, Catherine Colonna, was asked to explain the French position after being summoned by the Europe minister, Wendy Morton, on Friday, and told that the “confrontational” language of ministers in Paris was making the situation “no easier to resolve”.
The UK government has approved 16 out of 47 applications for French boats to operate in the UK’s coastal waters. A further 14 applications are being considered where evidence of activity in those waters was limited, but 17 applications had been withdrawn by French applicants because of “poor evidence”.
Of greater concern to the French authorities is that 55 boats applying to fish in the waters off Jersey have been turned down by the island’s government due to lack of evidence that they have fished there for 10 days in any of the last three years.
Earlier in the day, the UK’s environment secretary, George Eustice, suggested that Emmanuel Macron’s hopes of being re-elected president may have been driving the diplomatic row which saw France’s ambassador in London summoned to the foreign office on Friday.