UK’s Johnson says can’t rule out trade action in French fishing row

(Corrects spelling of Colosseum in paragraph 4)

By Elizabeth Piper and Michel Rose

ROME (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday he could not rule out triggering trade dispute action against France next week in a post-Brexit row over fishing that has further strained relations and could ultimately disrupt the flow of goods.

Johnson, who is hosting the U.N. climate summit next week, again said he did not want the spat over fish to derail a meeting of the world’s 20 biggest economies, seen as a stepping stone to secure more commitments for COP26 in Glasgow

After an earlier British-hosted G7 meeting became overshadowed by a disagreement with the European Union over post-Brexit problems with the movement of sausages and other goods to Northern Ireland, Johnson was keen to defuse the row.

“If there is a breach of the treaty or we think there is a breach of the treaty then we will do what is necessary to protect British interests,” Johnson told Sky News in the Colosseum in Rome, where he is attending a G20 meeting.

Asked if he would rule out triggering dispute resolution measures in the so-called Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) next week, Johnson said: “No of course not, I don’t rule that out.”

“But what I think everybody wants to see (is) cooperation between the European allies and Emmanuel Macron and I share a common perspective which is that climate change is a disaster for humanity.”

Relations with France have become increasingly strained since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, with London’s security pact with the United States and Australia doing little to build trust with Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron has questioned Britain’s “credibility”.

Fishing, which dogged Brexit talks for years, while not economically crucial to either country, holds huge political importance to both, and the row, if not resolved, could trigger the beginning of dispute measures in the Brexit trade deal.

Any TCA proceedings would likely involve convening an arbitration panel to decide on the dispute, and could result in a demand for compensation or suspension of obligations under the free trade deal.


A letter sent by French Prime Minister Jean Castex to the EU calling on the bloc to demonstrate there is “more damage to leaving the EU than to remaining there”, as widely reported in the British media, has also soured relations.

In Rome, Johnson and Macron exchanged a mock-combative fist bump but did not appear to speak to one another as the leaders took a “family photo”. They are due to see each other for a brief meeting on Sunday.

“We’ve seen the French government make a number of comments in recent days, we don’t think those are appropriate,” Johnson’s spokesman said. “We have been seeking to work with the French government to issue more fishing licenses, we stand ready to continue that work.”

With an election in April in which Macron is expected to seek a new term, some British officials believe the French president is seeking to look tough to appeal to his electorate.

Some Europeans diplomats see Johnson’s government as likewise taking a firm stance to please Brexit supporters.

The issue escalated this week when a British scallop dredger was escorted to a French port after French officials said it did not have the correct documentation.

Both sides have since threatened to take further action, but a French diplomatic source told Reuters Macron shared Johnson’s aim of easing tensions.

“The president is in favour of calming things down, but at the same time he can’t pretend the British are not reneging on the commitments they’ve made,” the source said.

“Brexit was a sovereign choice, we respect that. It’s taken years to negotiate. The deal was signed, it must be applied now. When you sign a piece of paper, you must be true to it.”

(Corrects spelling of Colosseum in paragraph 4)

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Michael Holden in London and Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Alison Williams and Helen Popper)

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