The EU could impose customs duties on British goods if the government fails to give French fishermen a further 73 licences to operate in UK waters, a French minister has said.
Clément Beaune, the French Europe minister, made the threat in a television interview. It is the latest chapter in the battle over fishing licences after Brexit.
In the interview Beaune issued a warning to Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary, who has taken over the Brexit portfolio after Lord Frost’s resignation, that her predecessor’s strategy, “which consists of seeking the division of Europeans”, had never worked.
“[The British] have tried in recent months,” Beaune told France 2, the state TV channel. “We reacted and we obtained a lot of licences through this firmness.”
However, the European Commission, which has formal responsibility for taking action against Britain in disputes over the Brexit withdrawal deal, appeared less gung-ho than Beaune, saying only that it would study the French request for litigation.
Two weeks ago Virginijus Sinkevicius, the Lithuanian EU commissioner in charge of fishing, seemed to imply that the row had been settled when he hailed the award by Britain of 80 additional licences to French fishermen as a “very important step”.
France said the move meant its fishermen had received 93 per cent of the licences they had requested to continue working in British waters after Brexit. However, President Macron’s government insists that 73 fishermen are still without licences and it is pushing the EU to take legal action over them.
Beaune implied that the EU was certain to back France. He said he was due to meet European Commission representatives on January 4 before the launch of litigation at the Arbitration Tribunal, which was set up to judge disputes between the EU and the UK under the Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement.
Beaune said: “It is a signal that the Europeans all together are asking the British to apply [the agreement]. There can be reciprocal measures like customs duties and other things if the British don’t.
“The UK needs Europe. [The EU] is its biggest market. If the British don’t respect the agreement, they will not have free access to the market.”
Under the deal, EU vessels that had fished in British waters between 2012 and 2016 were allowed to continue doing so. But there has been argument over the level of proof required to show that vessels meet the criteria, with the UK demanding evidence from electronic tracking systems.
Most European boats were able to supply such evidence, but the French fleet includes numerous vessels of less than 12m long that are not equipped with electronic tracking devices. The dispute has centred largely on whether such vessels could provide written evidence like logbooks instead.
A spokesman for the European Commission said: “For the requested but not approved licences, we will examine together with the French authorities the legal circumstances around every requested licence which has not been granted.”