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Britain warns France ‘two can play at that game’ as fishing row escalates

Fishing boats moored in the port of Boulogne, France. Environment Secretary George Eustice has warned France the UK could retaliate if it goes ahead with threats in the fishing row, warning that "two can play at that game". Pic by Gareth Fuller

By Sam Blewett and Michael Bedigan, PA

Britain has told France “two can play at that game” in a warning the UK could retaliate if Paris goes ahead with “inflammatory” threats made in a post-Brexit row over fishing rights.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will challenge the French ambassador to the UK, Catherine Colonna, on France’s intentions late on Friday afternoon after taking the rare step of ordering an allied nation’s envoy to be summoned.

Claiming there is a lack of licences for French boats to fish in UK waters, Paris has threatened to block British boats from some ports and tighten checks on vessels travelling between France and the UK if the row is not resolved by Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the captain of the Scottish-registered scallop dredger detained in Le Havre during the diplomatic storm has been told to face a court hearing in August next year. The skipper is understood to be an Irish national.

French authorities allege the Cornelis Gert Jan vessel did not have a licence, a claim the boat’s owner Macduff Shellfish denies – however the European Union said the UK authorities withdrew the licence on March 1.

Environment Secretary George Eustice did not rule out blocking French vessels in retaliation as he struck out at a claim from France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune that the only language Britain understands is “the language of force”.

Mr Eustice told BBC Breakfast: “That is completely inflammatory and is the wrong way to go about things.”

Asked how the UK will respond if France does go ahead and block British trawlers, the Cabinet minister said: “Two can play at that game.”

He insisted any British response would be “proportionate”, adding: “It’s always open to us to increase the enforcement we do on French vessels, to board more of them if that’s what they’re doing to our vessels – there are other administrative things we can require of vessels.”

Pressed if the Government could block French vessels landing their catches in the UK, he responded: “If the French obviously do continue with this, then yes, we will take a proportionate response to that.”

Mr Eustice suggested French President Emmanuel Macron, who Boris Johnson is due to meet at the G20 summit in Rome, could be whipping up a row as he faces a difficult election in April during which votes in coastal communities will be hard-fought.

The Cabinet minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t know, but there obviously is an election coming up in France, it may be that is a factor in this.”

Mr Eustice acknowledged that France detaining the British vessel may have been a “routine operation” but has received mainstream attention because French authorities last week “said they were going to introduce all sorts of problems and make life difficult for people”.

Andrew Brown, head of public affairs for the Scottish firm Macduff Shellfish, told the PA news agency: “The charge relates to fishing in French waters without a licence and that’s the bone of contention.

“We believe we were fishing with a valid licence and the French authorities don’t.”

Britain has said France’s threat would likely breach EU law and Ms Truss has said she will ask the ambassador “to explain the disappointing and disproportionate threats made against the UK and Channel Islands”.

Brexit minister Lord Frost was expected to raise the issue of fishing with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic during a meeting over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Government views the proposed actions as “unjustified” and questioned whether they are compatible with the UK-EU trade deal “or wider international law”.

Cornelis Gert Jan was caught up in the diplomatic dispute and ordered to divert to the port of Le Havre on Wednesday after the French authorities said it was fishing in French waters without a licence.

French officials said another British trawler had also been fined for obstruction after refusing to allow police to board to carry out checks.

On Thursday, Mr Eustice told MPs the Cornelis had been granted a licence by the EU.

But European Commission spokesman Tim McPhie told journalists in Brussels: “The information we have is the licence for this vessel had been withdrawn by the UK authorities back in March.”

Earlier, Mr Beaune told French TV news channel CNews: “We need to speak the language of force because, unfortunately, that seems to be the only thing this British Government understands.”

French maritime minister Annick Girardin also told French radio news programme RTL Matin that Britain’s “failure to comply” with the UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement is “unacceptable”.

“It’s not war, it’s a fight,” she said.

“We have fishing rights, we must defend them and we will defend them.”

At the centre of the dispute are the licences for small boats, which are issued only if the vessels can demonstrate a history of fishing in British waters.

Mr Eustice told MPs on Thursday 171 vessels have been licensed to fish in the UK six to 12 nautical mile zone, of which 103 are French, and 18 of those vessels are under 12 metres.

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