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Brexit: French Fishermen Worry What A Trade Deal May Mean For Them

Dec 23, 2020
Originally published on December 24, 2020 10:17 am

With just days to go until Great Britain officially leaves the European Union's single common market and customs union, the two sides appear close to a trade deal.

But there has been particular apprehension along a stretch of French coastline that is home to the massive cross-channel rail and ferry port of Calais, and Europe's largest seafood processing platform. A dispute over fishing rights — a small but highly symbolic sector — has been one of the main sticking points to a trade deal between the EU and the United Kingdom.

Every morning at the English Channel port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, French trawlers pull up to the docks to unload their catch after fishing all night.

Laurent Merlin, a French fisherman, says he gets well over half his catch in British waters, where he says there are more fish. If there's no deal and the French are banned from fishing in British waters, Merlin says he won't survive.

Fishermen unload and sort the day's catch from the fishing boat Laurent-Geoffrey at Quai Gambetta in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.
Pete Kiehart for NPR

"It's not like we have the Atlantic Ocean to fish in," he says. "Here, we're in the Channel. In an hour and a half, I'm in English waters. If that's off limits, I'm dead."

The current system is a complex latticework of quotas for each type of fish that can be caught by each country. If there's no deal on December 31, when Britain leaves the Common Fisheries Policy, EU fleets — which, in this area, include those from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany — will no longer have equal access to U.K. fishing waters. World Trade Organization rules will take over, with new customs duties, barriers and quotas.

Ben Firmin, who works with the regional fisheries committee in Boulogne-sur-Mer, says there's always been a partnership: the French and other Europeans fish in British waters. The British sell more than 70% of their haul to Europe.

A dispute over fishing rights has been one of the main sticking points to a trade deal between the EU and the United Kingdom.
Pete Kiehart for NPR

"If there's no deal, it's going to be a lose-lose outcome for both the French fishermen and British fishermen," Firmin says.

Jean Paul Mulot, a government representative for northern France to the U.K., says Britain needs the European market.

"The British themselves are not eating that much fish," he says. "Yes, fish and chips, as we know, but for the rest, they're not big consumers."

Just 20 miles down the French coast from Boulogne-sur-Mer lies the port of Calais. For the last few months, the port and the highway leading to it have been clogged with trucks.

Benoit Celino sells fish to a customer at the fish market in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Pete Kiehart for NPR

British importers are anxious to get goods through before the possible imposition of new taxes and checks, if there's no trade deal.

British trucker Leo Warren says he's never seen anything like it.

"I've been driving a truck for 30 years and it's more crazy now than it has ever been," he says. "When I go into the dock now, I won't be on a boat for another five hours, I expect. In the past, sometimes I've gone in and half an hour from here — straight on a boat."

A worker directs trucks where to wait in line in order to board ferries to the United Kingdom in Calais, France. Twenty percent of British imports pass through the port of Calais.
Pete Kiehart for NPR

For decades, that seamless flow was guaranteed by Britain's membership in the EU's single market and customs union. Thousands of trucks a day rolled on and off ferries and trains on both sides of the English Channel.

President and General Manager of Port Boulogne Calais Jean-Marc Puissesseau says the French government is working hard to find a solution.
Pete Kiehart for NPR

Jean-Marc Puissesseau, director of the ports in Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, says British and French customs officials put in place a border with E-declarations to be filled out before crossing. He says drivers will simply enter a customs code and there will be no more checks than before.

"I can tell you that the customs people will not stop the trucks more than they do today," says Puissesseau. "It's not possible. You think that the customs have time to stop the trucks when you have about 4,000 trucks a day? They don't have time!"

As for the fishers, Puissesseau says he knows they are nervous. He says the French government is working hard to find a solution.

"Britain is our neighbor," he says. "They are only 20 miles away. I cannot imagine that we would go back to a situation of 50 years ago, when it was so difficult to get to England with passports and authorizations."

For both Britain and France, Mulot says the fishing industry is emotionally and historically charged.

"These two countries have got a maritime history and fish is part of it," Mulot says. "The idea that there are small ports, small fishermen, and they are part of the scenery — they are part of the culture."

Brexit supporters have equated fishing rights with British sovereignty and claimed Europeans were "stealing" their fish. Mulot says the truth is British fishing communities depend on exports to Europe.

Crew from the fishing boat L'Ophelea unload equipment in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Brexit supporters have equated fishing rights with British sovereignty and claimed Europeans were "stealing" their fish.
Pete Kiehart for NPR

Back in Boulogne-sur-Mer, fishermen unload crates of flounder, stingray, crabs and whelks, a kind of sea snail. Mathieu Pinto, a 28-year-old captain, says he bought a boat two years ago and has a huge credit to pay off. He says he has to fish — and he'll put up a fight if he's barred from British waters.

"They'll soon realize their mistake," he says. "We'll block their fish coming into Europe. We're not stupid. If we have to wage war, we will."

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Mathieu Pinto, captain of the fishing boat L'Ophelea, says he needs to fish and will put up a fight if he is barred from British waters.
Pete Kiehart for NPR

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

With just days to go until Britain leaves the European Union's single market and customs union, the U.K. and the EU tonight are reported to be near a trade deal. A major final obstacle has been fishing rights. The small but highly symbolic sector drove a wedge between the 27-nation bloc and the U.K. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited a major French fishing port last week to find out why.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLS)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Every morning on the English Channel port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, trawlers pull up to the docks after fishing overnight and unload their catch. Fishermen Laurent Merlin has been doing this his whole life.

LAURENT MERLIN: (Through interpreter) It's not like we have the Atlantic Ocean. We are in the Channel. In an hour and a half, I'm in English waters. If that's off limits, we won't make it. We are dead.

BEARDSLEY: Like most of the fishermen here, Merlin gets well over half his catch in British waters, which he says have more fish. The current system is a complex latticework of quotas for each type of fish that can be caught by each country. No deal would mean that EU fleets - which include the Dutch, the Belgians, the Germans - would no longer have access to U.K. waters. World Trade Organization rules would take over with new customs duties, barriers and quotas.

BEN FIRMIN: And if there is no deal, it's going to be a lose-lose outcome for both the French fishermen and the British fishermen.

BEARDSLEY: That's Ben Firmin, who works with the regional fisheries committee in Boulogne. He says there's always been a partnership. The French and other Europeans fish in British waters, and the Brits, he says, sell more than 70% of their haul to Europe.

JEAN PAUL MULOT: The British themselves are not eating that much fish. Yes, the fish and chips, as we know, but for the rest, they are not big consumers.

BEARDSLEY: Jean Paul Mulot, a representative for northern France in Britain, says because British fishermen are so dependent on the European market, they also need an agreement. New barriers and delays would be disastrous to an industry that relies on moving fresh product fast. So how did Brexit come down to fishing? Mulot says the industry isn't the largest or the most strategic, but it's historically and politically charged, especially for Britain and France.

MULOT: These two countries have got maritime history and fish is part of it. Basically, it's the idea that there are small ports, small fishermen, and they are part of the scenery. They are part of our culture.

BEARDSLEY: During the Brexit campaign, Brexiteers equated fishing rights with British sovereignty and claimed that Europeans were stealing their fish. Mulot calls this fake news and says the truth is British fishing communities depended on being able to export their fish to the continent under the EU free-trade rules.

At markets like this one in Paris, a wealth of crustaceans, oysters, fish and octopus is gobbled up by French consumers. Back on the docks in Boulogne, fishermen unload crates of flounder, stingray, crabs and welks, a kind of sea snail. Twenty-eight-year-old Captain Mathieu Pinto bought a boat two years ago and has a huge credit to pay off. He said last week he was ready to fight if he couldn't fish in British waters.

MATHIEU PINTO: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "They'll realize their mistake when we block the ports and keep their fish from coming here," he says. "Then everybody'll be blocked. That's logical. We're not stupid."

It looks like it won't come to that. Tonight, French media report negotiators are nearing a deal on fish quotas, smoothing the way for an overall trade agreement between Britain and its former partners in the European Union.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Boulogne-sur-Mer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK MOTHERSBAUGH'S "ZISSOU SOCIETY BLUE STAR CADETS/NED'S THEME TAKE 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.