As we covered last week, a recent Politico article broke the news that French Prime Minister Jean Castex had written a letter to Ursula Von Der Leyen on the subject of the UK-EU fishing dispute. Castex, the website reported, had suggested that the European public needed to be shown the costs of leaving the European Union – which many commentators saw as a call for Britain to be punished for choosing to leave.
Some sympathetic commentators have seized on this point, however, arguing that the original French text makes no explicit mention of punishment. The offending lines run thus: ‘Il est indispensable de montrer clairement aux opinions publiques européennes que le respect des engagements souscrits n’est pas négociable et qu’il y a davantage de dommage à quitter l’Union qu’á y demeurer.’
One translation by an Irish professor runs thus: ‘It is indispensable to show clearly to European public opinion that the respect of commitments entered into is not negotiable and it is as damaging to leave the Union as it is to stay in it.’
This interpretation is difficult because the final line makes little sense in context. A correct alternative would translate ‘davantage’ in its normal adverbial sense as ‘more’ and render it thus: ‘that there is more harm in the leaving the Union than in remaining.’
Aside from precise quibbles of this sort, context is important here. Castex in alluding to commitments, one suspects, is invoking the recent judgment of the Polish supreme court, which Brussels sees as a direct repudiation of Poland’s treaty commitments. In the context of a fractious and internally divided EU, the reference to public opinion and the need to show the damage of leaving makes perfect sense.
Likewise the reference made earlier in the letter to setting a dangerous precedent in other international treaties – Castex clearly trying to equate the interests of a narrow slice of the French fishing industry with the European Union as a whole.
A final point relates to Castex’s point about commitments being ‘non-negotiable’. Yet France has been trying to renegotiate the terms of the TCA to get licences to which it is not entitled! Castex’s real aim, of course, is to affirm that the NI Protocol is non-negotiable: when in fact it is, both under Joint Committee rules and under Article 13 of the Protocol.
In the event, with little support forthcoming from the Commission, France has had to back down on threats to cut off Jersey’s electricity and reduce border traffic to a standstill. And contrary to equivocations that place the blame equally on either side, the UK government granted the vast majority of EU licences – including French ones. Those French applications that were rejected represent those that simply could not evidence historic fishing ties, hardly difficult with modern technology.
Still, this affair is a foretaste of French tactics to come – which will ramp up once France assumes the presidency of the European Council. This underscores the urgent need for British suppliers to swiftly diversify their routes, and for more reliable sources of electricity generation for the coming winter.