Last-ditch talks have been launched to find an agreement between the UK and France in the dispute over fishing licences, as the head of the ports of Calais and Boulogne spoke of a disaster if Paris goes through on its threats to clog up trade.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau said he had already received instructions to stop British fishers from unloading in Boulogne from Tuesday while the border authorities at Calais would enforce tougher controls on goods laden trucks.
“It will be a drama, it will be a disaster,” he said. “It will be a chaos in your country because the trucks will not cross, it will be chaos at the ports … It has reached a ridiculous point, I would say.
“I hope that the British and [the French] find an agreement, we find a solution to get out of this point. I know that there is some discussions during the weekend so I do really hope.”
The focus of the row is the shortfall in the number of licences given to French vessels within the coastal waters of the UK and Jersey, a British crown dependency.
The UK has only approved 16 out of 47 applications for French boats to operate in the UK’s coastal waters. A further 14 applications are being considered where evidence of activity in those waters was limited, but 17 applications had been withdrawn by French applicants because of “poor evidence”.
Of greater concern to the French authorities is that 55 boats applying to fish in the waters off Jersey have been turned down by the island’s government due to lack of evidence that they have fished there for 10 days in any of the past three years.
Officials from the European Commission, the UK, France and Jersey were seeking to find a way out of the crisis in talks on Saturday. Paris has said it will gradually increase customs and sanitary controls on freight, make more rigorous checks of trucks coming in and leaving France and prohibit trawlers from landing their catch in French ports if the dispute was not resolved.
The French government is also considering raising the price of nuclear energy provided to Jersey through undersea cables.
France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, has written to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, seeking further EU action on top of the unilateral measures announced, but sources in Brussels said they were hoping to avoid such an escalation.
Speaking at the G20 summit in Rome on Saturday, Johnson confirmed the UK could consider formal action under the trade and cooperation agreement over perceived French breaches of its terms, reiterating his willingness to take whatever action was necessary.
Asked if he would rule out triggering any such action next week, Johnson told Sky News: “No of course not, I don’t rule that out. But what I think everybody wants to see it cooperation between the European allies.”
Speaking during a round of broadcast interviews at the Coliseum in the Italian capital, he said: “If there is a breach of the treaty or we think there is a breach of the treaty then we will do what is necessary to protect British interests.”
Asked if he believed there had been a breach, he said this was likely but stressed his desire that the row should not overshadow efforts on climate change being discussed at the G20 ahead of next week’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow.
“I am worried that there might be. I am looking at what is going on at the moment and I think that we need to sort it out but that is quite frankly small beer, trivial, by comparison with the threat to humanity that we face,” he said.
The authorities in Jersey and the UK have repeatedly said they are open to any further evidence from applicants of having operated in their waters.
It is understood the latest talks are focusing on what level of data might be accepted and whether any further flexibility can be found to avert issues at the ports on Tuesday.
“Make no mistake, it is not just for the Europeans but all of their partners,” he said. “Because when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility.
“We need to respect each other and respect the word that has been given.”
Puissesseau told the BBC that finding an agreement was vital. “Don’t you think we have enough problems with the virus? We lost in the port of Calais last year, because of the virus, €30m turnover and this year we are again going to lose €20m,” he said.
“That is €50m lost due to a virus and now we will be obliged to bring in controls in our port? I tell you, this economical problem with fishers is a drop of water in the ocean.”