UK fishing boat captain to face French trial

Rennes (France) (AFP) – French prosecutors on Friday ordered a trial for the captain of a British trawler detained for operating without a licence, escalating a fishing rights row that could spark a trade war as soon as next week.

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Maritime authorities sequestered the vessel at the Channel port of Le Havre on Wednesday, saying a spot check revealed it had scooped up more than two tons of scallops in French waters without a proper licence.

"The captain of the Cornelis Gert Jan has been summoned to appear at a court hearing in Le Havre on August 11, 2022," the city's deputy prosecutor, Cyrille Fournier, said in a statement.

He faces charges of "non-authorised fishing in French waters by a boat from outside the European Union," he added, which carry a maximum fine of 75,000 euros ($87,000) as well as potential "administrative penalties."

The owner of the trawler reiterated Friday that he believed the boat had a valid licence for fishing in French waters.

"It does seem to be an administrative misunderstanding or different interpretation of the rules," Andrew Brown, a director at Scotland-based Macduff Shellfish, told AFP.

New standoff?

"They're very technical, they're on the minutiae of the licence. Our priority is to get the crew out," he said.

Currently they remain on the Cornelis Gert Jan, where "there's plenty of food and space for them", he added.

Britain and France have been at loggerheads for months over new licensing rules for EU boats wanting to operate in waters around Britain and particularly the Channel Islands.

Paris has warned that unless licence applications are approved for dozens of French fishermen, it will ban UK boats from unloading their catches at French ports starting November 2, and impose time-consuming customs and sanitary checks on all products brought to France from Britain.

Officials have also suggested that France could hike electricity prices for Jersey, which relies on mainland France for its power supplies.

French envoy summoned

Britain summoned the French ambassador in London for consultations Friday to explain the "threats", just hours after French Prime Minister Jean Castex offered to open talks to defuse the row.

Environment Secretary George Eustice on Friday accused France of "inflammatory language" and did not rule out blocking French vessels from landing their catches in the UK in retaliation.

Asked about the claim by France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune that the only language Britain understood was "the language of force," Eustice told the BBC: "That is completely inflammatory and is the wrong way to go about things."

"We will see what they do on Tuesday but we reserve the right to respond in a proportionate way," he said.

French envoy summoned

French fleets accuse officials in Britain as well as its protectorate of Jersey of using Brexit as an excuse to stop them securing licences for waters they say they have plied for years.

London has denied the claims, and promised "an appropriate and calibrated response" to the French measures, with the British fishing industry depending on French ports as a gateway to Europe, its main export market.

Tensions over the licence requests had already spiralled into a brief naval standoff last May, when dozens of French trawlers massed in front of the Saint Helier harbour at Jersey.

Fears of a blockade prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to send two Royal Navy gunboats to the area, with France then sending two of its own coastal patrol vessels before the French trawlers retreated.