Emmanuel Macron holding Northern Ireland Brexit talks hostage over 'fish wars'

·3 min read
Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron are on a collision course over fishing and Brexit. - Reuters
Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron are on a collision course over fishing and Brexit. - Reuters

Emmanuel Macron has form when it comes to holding Brexit negotiations hostage to get his way.

France is threatening to block any UK-EU deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol unless the row over post Brexit fishing licences is resolved in Paris’s favour.

With the presidential elections looming next year, Mr Macron cannot afford to be seen to sell out his fishermen, especially as many hail from a stronghold of his rival Marine Le Pen.

The French president suspects, as his Europe minister said today the only language Boris Johnson understands is that of strength.

So he will reach for every lever he can to exert maximum political pressure.

The detaining of a UK trawler in French waters is one example of this strategy, the threat to the negotiations over Northern Ireland is another.

“No other European cooperation issue with the United Kingdom will be able to move forward without restoring trust and fully applying the signed agreements,” Paris warned in a sign that the Brexit talks are in its sights.

Mr Macron has trod this path before. In October 2019, he blocked an extension to the Brexit negotiations, risking a potential no deal, to heap pressure on Westminster to back Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.

A year later, he threatened to veto any Brexit trade deal that did not satisfy Paris or its fishermen.

The strategy made clear to the European Commission it could not give too much to the UK, while ratcheting up the pressure on London.

Judging by the negative reactions of the British fishing industry to the trade deal, the tactic worked.

Now 12 months later, Mr Macron has reached for the same playbook by threatening the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Those talks are already extremely delicate but both sides hope could bring some resolution to what has been a running sore in UK-EU relations.

Mr Macron’s threat throws a pall of uncertainty over the negotiations.

The commission will be reluctant to have any negotiated deal rejected by one of its member states, while Lord Frost will be reluctant to be seen to give into French strongarm tactics.

Much will depend on how long the “fish wars” last but there is a greater risk of the UK triggering Article 16 of the protocol now than there was before Paris issued its latest threat.

That won’t concern the French president. He has long played the role of Brexit bad cop in UK-EU negotiations and was ready to use the threat of no deal to secure his political goals.

The ardently Europhile Mr Macron appears to believe that “Anglo-bashing” will prove more popular than the “Brussels-bashing” used by his electoral rivals when the French come to the polls next year.

Britain will hope that the European Commission will bring Paris to heel because it argues France is in violation of the Brexit trade deal. Brussels will play for time and hope that the row dies down.

The UK can retaliate, under its own powers, and through the dispute resolution mechanisms in the Brexit trade deal, which could lead to tariffs or the suspension of parts of the agreement.

Such a move is only likely to poison the well further and make a workable deal on Northern Ireland more difficult. A suspension of the trade deal will also hurt British interests.

It is true that the commission and other member states would prefer negotiations over Northern Ireland and fishing rights to be kept entirely separate.

But that reluctance will not extend to backing London over Paris, an influential member state.

Instead, EU capitals and the commission will hope the fish dispute is resolved before it destabilises the temporary truce for talks over Northern Ireland.

For now, EU diplomats are likely to express support for France in public, before wearily rolling their eyes in private at the latest example of Mr Macron’s taste for disruptive power plays.