Boris Johnson told Emmanuel Macron on Sunday to “withdraw his threats” to impose more cumbersome border controls and criticized the French president for a leaked official letter proposing Britain should be punished for leaving the EU.
Macron and Johnson held a 30-minute tête-à-tête on the outskirts of the G20 summit in Rome. Downing Street’s statement after the meeting was in contrast to that of the Elysée Palace, which said both leaders agreed to work constructively to reduce the dispute over post-Brexit fishing licenses.
Number 10 said Johnson expressed his “deep concern over the rhetoric emanating from the French government in recent days, including the French Prime Minister’s proposal that Britain be punished for leaving the EU”.
The British Prime Minister told Macron that he hoped France would “de-escalate this rhetoric and withdraw their threats”, Downing Street said.
The Elysée statement said Macron called on Johnson to abide by the rules of the Brexit agreement and that their dialogue should be conducted with “high standards, seriousness and respect”. French officials said the couple would work on “practical measures” in the “next few days” to promote a de-escalation in the fisheries conflict.
The exchange followed a leaked letter from French Prime Minister Jean Castex urging the EU to take further steps in the fisheries sector. He wrote that the bloc should show that there is “more harm in leaving the EU than staying there”.
Whitehall insiders suggested the letter had “destroyed all trust” between Britain and France. A British official described it as “the criminal record”.
In an interview with the Financial Times on Friday, Macron warned that Britain’s international reputation was at stake in the dispute over fishing rights and warned that other nations were following closely.
“Make no mistake, it’s not just for Europeans but all their partners,” Macron said. “Because when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later doing the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it’s not a big sign of your credibility.”
Tensions over fishing rights have simmered for several months after Britain failed to issue permits for some small French boats to fish in British waters under the Brexit agreement.
Paris announced on Wednesday that it would increase customs and hygiene controls on freight, make stricter controls on trucks entering and leaving France, and ban trawlers from landing their catch in French ports if the dispute was not resolved by Tuesday.
France’s European Minister Clement Beaune sent out to Twitter on Sunday to lament that “we are missing not just a few licenses, but more than 40 per cent of French detailed requests”.
“After 10 months, where such a significant amount of licenses, aimed at one country, is missing, it is not a technical issue, it is a political choice and a breach of TCA. [Trade and Cooperation Agreement],” he wrote.
Beaune added that France had called for action at EU level and “is ready to implement proportionate and reversible measures from 2 November”.
Lord David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit minister, said on Twitter on Saturday that Britain would initiate dispute resolution proceedings if France implemented further control of fishing vessels and at the border.
“We will continue to speak constructively to try to resolve all the differences between us, and we urge the EU and France to step back from rhetoric and actions that make it more difficult,” he tweeted.
The former British ambassador to France, Lord Peter Ricketts, said he believed relations between France and Britain were at their lowest point in his diplomatic career and surpassed the dispute over the Iraq war in 2003.
“It is a case of total collapse of trust after so many cases where the British government has not respected its word,” he told FT.
“The outlook now is real economic damage and a downward spiral,” he said.
“Politically, there has been little motivation for this to be decided, because it is convenient to fight with France to distract attention, and practical to show base supporters [the UK government is] is tough on France. “