With just days to go until Great Britain officially leaves the European Union’s single common market and customs union, the two sides appear close to a trade deal.
But there has been particular apprehension along a stretch of French coastline that is home to the massive cross-channel rail and ferry port of Calais, and Europe’s largest seafood processing platform. A dispute over fishing rights — a small but highly symbolic sector — has been one of the main sticking points to a trade deal between the EU and the United Kingdom.
Every morning at the English Channel port of Boulogne-sur-Mer, French trawlers pull up to the docks to unload their catch after fishing all night.
Laurent Merlin, a French fisherman, says he gets well over half his catch in British waters, where he says there are more fish. If there’s no deal and the French are banned from fishing in British waters, Merlin says he won’t survive.
“It’s not like we have the Atlantic Ocean to fish in,” he says. “Here, we’re in the Channel. In an hour and a half, I’m in English waters. If that’s off limits, I’m dead.”
The current system is a complex latticework of quotas for each type of fish that can be caught by each country. If there’s no deal on December 31, when Britain leaves the Common Fisheries Policy, EU fleets — which, in this area, include those from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany — will no longer have equal access to U.K. fishing waters. World Trade Organization rules will take over, with new customs duties, barriers and quotas.
Ben Firmin, who works with the regional fisheries committee in Boulogne-sur-Mer, says there’s always been a partnership: the French and other Europeans fish in British waters. The British sell more than 70% of their haul to Europe.
“If there’s no deal, it’s going to be a lose-lose outcome for both the French fishermen and British fishermen,” Firmin says.
Jean Paul Mulot, a government representative for northern France to the U.K., says Britain needs the European market.
“The British themselves are not eating that much fish,” he says. “Yes, fish and chips, as we know, but for the rest, they’re not big consumers.”
Just 20 miles down the French coast from Boulogne-sur-Mer lies the port of Calais. For the last few months, the port and the highway leading to it have been clogged with trucks.
British importers are anxious to get goods through before the possible imposition of new taxes and checks, if there’s no trade deal.
British trucker Leo Warren says he’s never seen anything like it.
“I’ve been driving a truck for 30 years and it’s more crazy now than it has ever been,” he says. “When I go into the dock now, I won’t be on a boat for another five hours, I expect. In the past, sometimes I’ve gone in and half an hour from here — straight on a boat.”
For decades, that seamless flow was guaranteed by Britain’s membership in the EU’s single market and customs union. Thousands of trucks a day rolled on and off ferries and trains on both sides of the English Channel.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, director of the ports in Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, says British and French customs officials put in place a border with E-declarations to be filled out before crossing. He says drivers will simply enter a customs code and there will be no more checks than before.
“I can tell you that the customs people will not stop the trucks more than they do today,” says Puissesseau. “It’s not possible. You think that the customs have time to stop the trucks when you have about 4,000 trucks a day? They don’t have time!”
As for the fishers, Puissesseau says he knows they are nervous. He says the French government is working hard to find a solution.
“Britain is our neighbor,” he says. “They are only 20 miles away. I cannot imagine that we would go back to a situation of 50 years ago, when it was so difficult to get to England with passports and authorizations.”
For both Britain and France, Mulot says the fishing industry is emotionally and historically charged.
“These two countries have got a maritime history and fish is part of it,” Mulot says. “The idea that there are small ports, small fishermen, and they are part of the scenery — they are part of the culture.”
Brexit supporters have equated fishing rights with British sovereignty and claimed Europeans were “stealing” their fish. Mulot says the truth is British fishing communities depend on exports to Europe.
Back in Boulogne-sur-Mer, fishermen unload crates of flounder, stingray, crabs and whelks, a kind of sea snail. Mathieu Pinto, a 28-year-old captain, says he bought a boat two years ago and has a huge credit to pay off. He says he has to fish — and he’ll put up a fight if he’s barred from British waters.
“They’ll soon realize their mistake,” he says. “We’ll block their fish coming into Europe. We’re not stupid. If we have to wage war, we will.”