The diplomatic cold war between Britain and France could not have come at a worse time for Boris Johnson – or the world. The prime minister, already embattled over the country’s Covid response, broken supply chains and the claim that Conservative economic policy post-Brexit has ended up as Corbyn-Lite, needed a row over fisheries like he needed a hole in the head. At the very moment when he was required to raise his sights and concentrate all of his efforts on the Glasgow climate conference, he has allowed himself to engage in a war of words with Emmanuel Macron that looks as if it is about to get out of control, with COP26 as grade-one collateral damage.
The world – represented in this instance by the 25,000 delegates assembled in Scotland to cobble together a fix for global warming – is not interested in the rights and wrongs of the dispute. All the international community cares about is that Johnson, as the convener and lead voice at the gathering, should not waste time playing the blame game with Macron over a matter that ought to have been resolved weeks ago by officials over lunch at the Berlaymont.
As it happens, it is Macron who bears most, or more, of the responsibility for the breakdown. He seems, as they say in Ulster, to have lost the run of himself in recent weeks. With the presidential elections now less than six months away, he has evidently decided that the way to recover ground lost to the far-right at home is to paint Johnson as a rough beast who if he is not brought to heel will run roughshod over France while making a mockery of the European Union.
For his part, the British PM has failed totally to acknowledge the extent of the hurt and humiliation he and Joe Biden heaped on Macron’s head by secretly plotting, first, to scupper a multi-billion-dollar deal by the French shipbuilder Naval Group to supply submarines to the Australian navy, then to cut France out of a new, three-way Pacific defence pact.
At the G20 summit in Rome this weekend, Biden went out of his way to apologise to Macron for what was a “clumsy,” ill-informed intervention. Johnson, however, has done nothing similar. Instead, he has waded into the fisheries dispute, charging France, and Macron in particular, with exploiting a routine difference of view over licenses to cast Britain as a loose cannon.
He is especially angry over a letter sent by Macron’s prime minister Jean Castex to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in which he urges her to make clear to the UK that leaving the EU was never going to work out well for Britain. Unless Brussels repudiates the letter, Johnson has said, he is ready to take the whole of the EU to court. So there! Prenez un grip!
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Von der Leyen has so far kept quiet on the subject, preferring to keep her focus on climate change. But it is obvious that, while disappointed in Macron in particular, who seems set on forcing his personal feud with Johnson onto the wider European agenda, she is exhausted with both leaders and desperate that they should turn down the volume.
Will they, though? In this comedy replay of the War of Jenkins’s Ear, Macron looks to be ready to go nuclear over fisheries. Unless the UK, and the authorities in Jersey, start issuing more licenses to French boats to operate in British waters, he will refuse to let British trawlers land their catches in France. But he won’t stop there. Oh no. Next, after the manner of French air-traffic controllers, he will endorse a work-to-rule at the port of Calais, the main entry point for British goods into the EU.
All this over a sector worth less than one per cent of the GDP of either party.
Johnson, for his part, appears in no mood to lean on either UK fisheries officials or the bailiwick of Jersey. He could cut through the bureaucracy at a stroke. But he won’t. Instead, while calling on Macron to dial down the rhetoric, he has turned his own megaphone up to eleven. If the French don’t like the basis on which licenses are being issued (or not issued), he says, then they had better watch out for, as his fisheries supremo George Eustice put it, “two can play at that game”.
It really is pathetic. Macron and Johnson need to grow up and act their age. Don’t they know what day it is? There are more important issues at stake, not least the ability of mankind to survive the next 50 years. Maybe von der Leyen can knock some sense into them, or failing that, Angela Merkel, as her last act of statesmanship, can take the pair of them to the woodshed. She’d be doing the world a favour.