PARIS — France escalated a fishing rights dispute with Britain on Thursday, announcing that French authorities had seized a British boat that lacked a license to operate in French waters and have issued a warning to another British vessel.
France’s minister of the sea, Annick Girardin, announced the seizure one day after the French government threatened sanctions against Britain in the lingering dispute that has stirred emotions on both sides of the English Channel for months.
“Now we must speak the language of force because I fear that unfortunately this British government understands only that,” Clément Beaune, France’s junior minister responsible for European affairs, told right-wing news channel CNews.
In a response Thursday evening, the British government announced the summoning of the French ambassador. “We regret the confrontational language that has been consistently used by the French government on this issue,” the British statement read.
The situation could further escalate next Tuesday, when France may step up border checks on British goods entering France and ban British fishing boats from unloading their seafood at certain French ports, potentially aggravating Britain’s supply chain crisis. French officials have also reiterated a prior threat of using electricity supplies to Britain as leverage, even though it was unclear how such measures would be implemented or when they would take effect.
The seizure of the British trawler Cornelis Gert Jan on Wednesday may have been meant as a warning shot. France’s Ministry of the Sea said in a statement that such checks were normal at this time of year, but it stressed that they had also occurred amid “tightening controls in the English Channel, in the context of the discussions over licenses.” The ministry added that the captain could face charges and the catch seized.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday that France is not responsible for the escalation, adding that his government remains “open to discussions” with London.
In a statement, the British government called the French threats “disappointing and disproportionate, and not what we would expect from a close ally and partner.”
Macduff Shellfish, the company that owns the seized boat, said the vessel is being used as a “pawn in the ongoing dispute.”
“Macduff‘s fishing activity is entirely legal,” Andrew Brown, a director at the company, told Britain’s Sky News.
Fishing rights have been a growing point of vexation between Britain and the European Union since Britons voted to leave the bloc in 2016. In May, France and Britain deployed gunboats after French fishermen threatened to “blockade” a harbor at the small island of Jersey, where much of the tension has played out in recent months. British tabloids at the time declared that they were ready for war.
On Thursday, France’s sea minister clarified that she preferred to describe the dispute over shellfish as a “fight” and not as “a war.”