Tensions on the seas: the degradation of Franco-British relationships

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3 mins read

By Gaëtan Ledoux

Last year in May, the British TV channel ITV News caught an unusual scene on Jersey Island, close to Normandy’s coasts in France. A clip shared on Twitter showed a member of the Jersey Militia reenactment group firing a musket in the direction of French fishing boats blocking the Island.

This event occurred during the protest of the French fishermen in the Channel who were, together with the French government, demanding fishing licences that British authorities deny them. This is one of the complex post-Brexit situations that the European Union and the UK must deal with. The UK implemented new restrictions in the Channel after its departure from the EU. These measures threatened the catches of French fishers. 150 forbidden French boats were used to catch 500 metric tons of fish in these fishing grounds around the British Channel Islands of Alderney and Guernsey. Partial agreements were reached between the UK and the EU to provide licences to the fishers, but many French boats were still not given one.

Facing the refusal of the British authorities to extend the number of licences to the other French fishermen, Paris threatened London to restrain the electricity access of Jersey. Eventually, France did not implement this threat, and today’s status quo the negotiations between France and the UK are at a standstill. Last November despite a meeting between the main stakeholders of the situation, the French Minister for European Affairs Clément Beaune wanted to “give a chance to the negotiation without naivety”, and the British Minister for Brexit David Frost emphasized the “really quite significant gaps” between France and the EU, and the UK.

The submarine crisis between Paris and London is blatant evidence of the erosion of the strong relations the two countries built during the 20th century

France and the UK have had many  conflictual relationships. Since the invasion of England by William the Conqueror from Normandy in the 11th century (the only invasion of the Island that has ever succeeded), the two countries have been challenging each other in Europe for the leadership of the islands. As time goes by, the relationship between France and the UK has softened, the two countries were strong allies throughout the 20th century. However, as this surprising and brief battle scene on the British Island shows, lately tensions between Paris and London rose, and particularly on the seas. The Channel is not just known for its fishing waters , like the Mediterranean Sea, it has also become a cemetery for drowned migrants. This also escalates the tensions between the two countries.

Migrants willing to reach the UK to settle or to join their family are being blocked by the British border guards in the French city of Calais where the Channel Tunnel starts. In 2016 almost 7 000 migrants were stuck at the British border according to the local prefecture. This issue has been gaining salience in the last 30 years. In the aftermath of the USSR collapse, eastern Europeans, especially people from Yugoslavia, were trying to reach the UK. These migrations were later replaced by the flows of people fleeing the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Many of these migrants are stuck here for months or years, facing the refusal of the British government to grant them residence permits. Then, some of them try to enter British territory by crossing the Channel.

In 2021, 28 000 migrants crossed the Channel to reach the UK, according to the British news agency PA, three times more compared to the year before. The British authorities accuse France for not doing enough to stop the crossing of migrants despite the financial help given from London. And, as the number of attempts to cross the Channel soars, the number of deaths from these risky trips grows as well. Last December, the dead bodies of 27 people were discovered on the northern French coasts in what remains the deadliest boat sinking tragedy in the Channel. Paris and London are putting  the blame on each other, weakening the Franco-British relationship even more.

The relationship between the two countries was venturing even more into uncharted waters on September 15th 2021,  when the White House announced the AUKUS military alliance between Australia, the United States of America, and the UK. This coalition’s aim is to prevent Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific Ocean and to guarantee security in the region. For Paris, the result was the loss of a commercial order of 12 submarines, a contract of 56 billion euros signed with Australia and the French industrial company Naval Group in 2016. The ire of Paris against Washington did not translate into strong diplomatic actions. Concerning London, the French government only addressed cutting remarks towards the British authorities: the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said London was only the “fifth wheel of the carriage”. London ironically answers through Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s, saying his country’s “love for France is ineradicable”.

The submarine crisis between Paris and London is blatant evidence of the erosion of the strong relations the two countries built during the 20th century. Moreover, it reveals the distinct paths they chose for the upcoming decades. On the one hand, France decided to pursue the European project. The election in 2017 of Emmanuel Macron, and his enthusiasm for a deeper integration of the member states in the EU settled France’s future on the continent. On the other hand, the British people in 2016 democratically chose to withdraw from the EU, claiming to become the maritime power they used to be when “the sun never set” on the British Empire. The “infernal couple”, as the Historian Robert Tombs calls it, took two different ways but they will not fail to meet each other again.

Cover: Philippe Serrand

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