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More Thoughts from France

brittain and france
Written by Caroline Bell

We continue to report on the revealing debates on Brexit in the French Senate. Three things stand out: the cross-party consensus (so that we should not look forward to a future change of policy); the level of antagonism and worry concerning post-Brexit Britain; and acceptance that France needs a relationship with Britain. This underlines the risks and also the opportunities for the UK government.

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Translated by CB from the published transcript at: https://www.senat.fr/cra/s20210303/s20210303_mono.html#par_233

Italics/highlights my own.

Christian Chambon President of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Force committee

“It’s a lose-lose deal, to quote Michel Barnier….

Even without customs duties, the return of border controls is bringing friction and disruption to our supply chains. The reduction in trade risks being greater than foreseen, with many difficulties facing businesses. Numerous sectoral agreements remain to be negotiated, notably fisheries: after 2026, any access to British waters remains to be decided, and the problem of quota ceded to the Europeans remains unresolved. It’s essential that the EU27 remain united, vigilant and prepared. You may can count on the Senate to support the government in this area.

The situation in Northern Ireland remains very sensitive, as we have seen with the vaccines episode. The requirement to declare all goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will lead to a real trade divide which risks reviving Irish political tensions and turning public opinion in favour of the reunification of Ireland.

And despite Boris Johnson’s opposition, a referendum on Scottish independence could be rerun. “Global Britain” could be replaced by “Little England”.

… Our bilateral defence relationship [with the UK] is not a worry. We are more concerned about the UK’s wish to be tied into the European defence framework. The UK has just announced that it wants to turn towards the Pacific region… Minister [Clement Beaune], what is your perception of Britain’s thinking on these subjects? Could the British turn their backs on European defence when our interests are largely the same? The EU will then have to develop strategic autonomy relying solely on France…

Jean-Francois Rapin, President of the European Affairs committee

“… it’s a lose-lose agreement as M. Barnier said, which simply minimises the losses….

The fisheries agreement … is fundamental for our fishermen. But what about after 2026? Without an agreement we would lose 650 million euros of catch annually… We must ensure our standards are respected to guarantee fair competition and food security… There should be alignment in veterinary controls [SPS checks]. I’m worried about the difference in checks between member states: some ports could be tempted to reduce checks to attract business…

The Northern Ireland Protocol has avoided the worst but created new tensions. I fear that the European Commission threw oil onto the flames by invoking Article 16.”

Eric Bocquet

This agreement guarantees that we won’t have a deregulated competitor on our doorstep, contrary to Boris Johnson’s wishes. Thanks to Michel Barnier, British waters will not be closed, even though the delivery of licences has dragged on too long, especially for fishermen in the Hauts de France. Only 16 out of 150 boats at Boulogne-sur-mer had obtained this precious pass a fortnight ago…

The Europeans failed to put in place a system of dynamic regulatory alignment; British rules therefore risk becoming lower than European standards, leading to dumping. And what about post-2026 for fishermen? Should we fear that it will be clawed back [by the British]? The City remains the commercial hub for finance. Boris Johnson has announced the creation of ten free ports… which will lead to a veritable Singapore on Thames on our doorstep. Besides, the City’s financial dominance has not been fundamentally dented. The OpenLux affair showed the necessity of acting against tax havens even at the heart of the EU. But the City is on the offensive against European public bodies, refuses to [agree] an ambitious financial transactions tax policy and displays a culpable indifference in regard to tax havens.”

Catherine Morin-Desailly

Very concerned by fishing. Norman ports have had to invest 8 billion euros to deal with new trade rules… “In January 2021, imports of fish from Britain had fallen both in volume and quality. What happens to fishermen after 2026?” Asks about fishing in the Channel Islands. Jersey refusing licences to Norman boats, Guernsey has only delivered licences to 57 vessels out of 300.

Didier Marie

“It [the TCA] is a compromise which preserves the principles of the Single Market and allows Great Britain to save face…. But where is foreign policy, defence, space, financial services? More negotiations are necessary. There is also the question of what has been agreed but called into question, like the difficult implementation of the Northern Ireland backstop [his word].

The United Kingdom wants to go its own way. We should remember that: for the first time it’s not a question of organising convergence but of managing divergence.

Beware of the democratic oversight on this agreement. It’s likely that given the urgency, member states did not check the detail to see that all the clauses came under the exclusive competence of the European Union as the Commission claims. The management of the agreement will be entrusted to a partnership council staffed by officials who are not subject to any parliamentary scrutiny; let’s be vigilant.”

Jacques Fernique

“Michel Barnier considers this agreement to be much more ambitious than a free trade agreement, with rules against social and fiscal dumping and environmental demands. We are promised a robust framework to prevent unfair competition and environmental regression. But it’s all in the implementation. Our environmental rules will progress. The non-regression clause therefore will not avert damaging divergence: everything depends on the vigilance of the Commission. The agreement doesn’t go far enough on financial services…. Access by British financial services firms to the Single Market is conditional on strict observance of European rules. We cannot accept a Singapore-on-Thames…”

Richard Yung

A no-deal would have been catastrophic for both sides. But Brexit not good for France. The UK has a 19th century vision of global Britain but will become “a little island of free trade and low taxes on the edge of the Continent”… etc etc

On financial services’ equivalence: “the British wanted more, but aren’t they secretly pleased to be able to develop financial regulation which is more attractive than that of the EU’s?”

On geographical indications – relieved that existing GIs are protected, but what of GIs for new products? There is nothing. It’s in France’s interests to make this deal work.

Jean-Noel Guerini

Raises the issue of unfinished business again, especially European defence. “The dream of European defence remains a chimera when 60% of European defences forces are French or British, as is 80% of the spend in defence R&D. France alone cannot take on the burden of European defence and nuclear deterrence… We must build this European defence [with the EU27]… The EU must not remain a paper tiger.”

Pascal Allizard

There is no more business as usual, it’s a lose-lose deal. “Fears remain about the loss of trust during the negotiations and the first hours of its implementation. We saw it with out colleagues during a visit to Calais and Boulogne. The new [fishing] rules are worrying the whole sector. Despite a 25% drop in quota and various glitches at the start of the new year, access to British waters has been maintained, but what will it be in a few years’ time when the agreement must be renegotiated? British fishermen are complaining of catches lost or spoiled because of new admin procedures, notably licences.

This question is crucial in the light of the depreciation cost of a trawler. Diversification [away from fishing] even if subsidised, is not desirable. Food sovereignty is a challenge of the century. And what will become of French ports? It will be hard to make France the hub of Europe. Ports are strategic assets, as the Chinese well understand, investing massively in port operators and container transport.”

Olivier Cadic

Where is the support for French small businesses? Fears unfair competition. “Numerous sectoral agreements remain to be negotiated. It’s like an onion: for every layer removed there is another to make you cry.”

Gisele Jourda

Defence again… “Brexit took away the British screen, which was very useful for hiding division and different approaches on the questions of defence. What has come out of the European Council? The Common Defence and Security Policy needs to be relaunched, even renewed…. The 2019 Withdrawal Agreement proposed much closer relations than the trade agreement signed in December 2020. We must maintain a united European front on this question.”

Alain Cadec

“A free trade agreement is not a customs union; the circulation of goods is much less fluid because of customs controls. That is not going to improve

The EU is worth less at 27 than at 28 and is now flanked by a new competitor. This agreement has limited the damage… I salute the unique institutional framework… Salami slicing [i.e. a suite of agreements] would have been bad for the EU.” Disappointed no free movement and no Erasmus…

“Another disappointment – the level playing field guarantees are not as rigorous as we could have hoped. The UK will profit from her regained sovereignty in the matter of regulation. The EU must remain vigilant and not hesitate to protect its interests…

Fisheries… We must be alert to the June 2026 deadline, and not hesitate to close the Single Market to British goods if we are not satisfied by the welcome accorded to our fishermen.

NI Protocol… implementation of customs controls “relies entirely on the goodwill of British authorities, who up to now have demonstrated the most extreme unwillingness [to cooperate]. This labyrinthine system will be subject to severe malfunction in the coming months, with the risk of repercussion on Irish politics and notably the Good Friday Agreement. We must not forget that we are dealing with Perfidious Albion!”

Clément Beaune, Europe Minister

On the Northern Ireland Protocol

We will live permanently with this complex Protocol. The current difficulties are due to choices made by the British and not by this protocol; don’t let’s mistake who is responsible. The British threat to use Article 16, brandished when the Commission clumsily tried to control vaccine exports, must not threaten the protocol. The British must implement it in its entirety. Their government wishes to prolong the grace period unilaterally: it is illegal and unacceptable. It is only in the framework of discussions that the protocol can be eased, not unilaterally.


“After June2026, the British could opt for an annual unilateral decision on access to their waters. But we have negotiating levers against that….. We have safeguarded the next six seasons… The EU has leverage in its negotiations with the UK. We will be able to impose customs duties on fish products and others [if UK does not continue with access]; energy cooperation may also enter into the talks. We are not expecting a cliff edge in 2026, we have the means to defend French fishing vigorously.”

Level playing field

“The level playing field covers all sectors. For the first time, there will be a capacity for verification and retaliation, with compensatory measures and fixed deadlines. It is fundamental that access to the Single Market is not achieved through a strategy of dumping or of Singapore on Thames.

No-deal would have led to the break-up of the EU

“Don’t romanticise no-deal. It would have led to a breakdown and the disintegration of the European union, when we need a Europe which is solid for the long term.

Competition – French objectives

“We must be vigilant on the level playing field conditions. France wants an early warning mechanism by economic operators on gaps and divergences – we need feedback on the ground. The Commission has agreed to put it in place. France also wants retaliatory measures to be taken at an EU level.”


We must let the dust settle… and then we must put in place a framework for Euro-British cooperation, since the UK refused to put defence into the agreement. France has made some proposals – I’m talking of the European initiative on intervention, within the informal cooperation between our armies which is already in place.

Data protection and financial services equivalence

“Data protection and financial services equivalence are exclusive competences of the EU. It is therefore leverage against the United Kingdom. As regards data protection, equivalence seems to be assured. Things are less clear for the financial sector; access to the European market will only be able to be granted product by product. In both sectors, European decisions can be revoked.”

Michelle Gréaume

Blockages of goods from France to NI via Eire… “We have just started a direct heavy-goods shipping route from Dunkirk to Rosslare. But there can be 300 – 400 different foodstuffs in the same lorry… with just as many different sanitary certificates. The EU refused London’s request for a delay to normalise Northern Ireland freight. It is the Northern Irish who are paying the price for intransigence in London and Brussels. How can France help to resolve these difficulties?”

Clement Beaune [does not answer the fundamental question]

“We have recruited 1,300 extra people to do the checks. Flows from the UK to France are going well, better than in the other direction. The situation could get complicated after 1st April and 1st July, when British checks are fully implemented. New routes are being developed: it’s an opportunity for our shipping companies. The ministerial committee on industrial restructuring is leading on support for Brittany ferries…

On Northern Ireland, the Protocol is creating trade frictions, but it is our best protection. It must be respected, even if an extension to the grace period is possible.”

[CB: the Protocol is not supposed to create trade frictions, but avoid them]

Clearing houses

Clement Beaune – “Clearing houses and financial services in general are systemic…. At the end of 2020, the European Commission granted British clearing houses equivalence to mid-2022. It is therefore right to profit from this transition period to encourage them to relocate to the EU, because it is an element of sovereignty.

Sugar wars…?

Pascale Gruny

“Brexit is above all a way for the UK to implement its Global Britain project and turn to other parts of the world. The consequences for our sugar industry risk being catastrophic. Our beet farmers export 10% of their sugar and 15% of their bioethanol to the UK. Now the UK has decided to import low cost sugar from other regions and refine it in its own country. British sugar could, in time, find its way onto the European market… What measures has government in mind to deal with these difficulties? Can safeguard clauses be invoked in case of market distortion?”

Beaune gives a very noncommittal answer.

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About the author

Caroline Bell