During the now virtually forgotten cod wars between Iceland and the United Kingdom from 1958 to 1976, the diminutive foreign office official Sir Donald Maitland invited to King Charles Street for a dressing down the Icelandic Ambassador, a 6’7” Nordic giant. When the ambassador arrived, Sir Donald climbed on to his massive desk, drew himself up to be eye-to-eye with his visitor and declared: ‘I have been instructed to deliver this from the highest level.’
The moral of this story is, if you wish to avoid seeming ridiculous, avoid fish wars. Ultimately, little is at stake. Outcomes are frequently embarrassing. There will inevitably be terrible tabloid jokes about herrings and floundering, et cetera ad infinitum. Britain’s cod war with Iceland lasted 18 years and achieved nothing. Emmanuel Macron seems not to have learnt this lesson.
One might have imagined the French president had calmed down following his hissy fit three weeks ago when he unleashed his prime minister and European minister to threaten the United Kingdom with retaliation (‘rétortion’) for the denial of 75 licenses for French scallop boats off the ChanneI Islands.
But that isn’t Macron’s way. He has instead ordered his ministers to come up with more moves to play against the British. His ambassadors have been instructed to line up European support. His European allies duly paid lip service to Macron’s demands for EU solidarity against the beastly British. But they’ve only signed up to wording that urged 'further technical work in accordance with the spirit and the letter of the agreement'. The EU is already riven with fault lines and conflicts, economic and security problems. Relations with the United Kingdom are terrible, which is to nobody’s advantage. Who needs a fish war now?
The French threatened to cut the electricity connectors to Britain only then to realise that would mean cutting off Ireland, too. Never mind that the measure would be insanely disproportionate, potentially reckless, cost them money, expose the French government to legal risk and jeopardise important French commercial interests in the UK, not least those of EDF Energy, which has a 10 per cent share of the UK domestic energy market.
Macron might stop a handful of British fishing boats landing their catches in France, but this will mean no more work for the French people who’ve made their living processing these fish. There’s even talk from his official spokesman of punitive tariffs on goods transiting the channel tunnel. It’s hard to even take this threat seriously. That would require EU agreement that won’t ever happen.
I’ve been to Saint-Malo, an important Breton scallop port, and seen these fishermen at work. They are brave, tough men who have fished the coastal waters for generations. It would be good if a deal could be found to keep these family boats at sea, so these brave men could continue to supply Coquilles Saint-Jacques. But let’s get serious. Theirs is not a casus belli.
Macron has calculated there are votes to be won bashing the ancient enemy. He doesn’t lack self-belief, so will doubtless pretend that all his posturing against Perfidious Albion and their lackeys on the Channel Islands is brilliantly effective. But it’s not even as if many votes are likely to be won. Brittany is seeing a resurgence of the Gilets Jaunes as fuel prices go though the roof. There are 40,000 farms in Brittany with more cows than the only 9,000 humans who are employed in the fishing industry. The fishermen are media-friendly and symbolic but what they do is many decimal places away from enormous economic significance. For them, Macron demands revenge? He’s at risk of seeming desperate or hysterical. Neither is a good look.
Further up the coast, in Boulogne, fishing unions have threatened blockages of Calais, which sounds much more formidable than anything Macron is going to be likely to be able to do. But it’s not clear these will be much more than ceremonial protests since they’re not apparently experiencing anything similar to the scale of the problem of the scallop men in Saint-Mâlo.
Boris Johnson, for his part, doesn’t have to do anything at this point. The sensible channel islanders have diesel generators on standby to replace the French interconnectors if necessary. The problem with Macron’s fish war is that while he might imaginatively calculate he’s netting votes, his EU partners are not that interested. They seem to have other fish to fry.