UK 'spreadsheet error' keeping British trawler detained in France, say sources

ITV News Wales and West of England Correspondent Rupert Evelyn explains what the row is about

Sources close to the owners of the fishing vessel detained in France have told ITV News all the government needs to do is call to apologise over an apparent administrative error.

Amid a worsening row over post-Brexit fishing rights, the Cornells is being held in France, with the government facing calls to step in and defend British fishermen.

A UK government spokesman said on Thursday evening the French ambassador will be summoned to the Foreign Office as a result.

ITV News West of England Correspondent Rupert Evelyn understands the skipper of the Cornelis has shown his licence to fish in French waters, which has satisfied local authorities.

Rupert Evelyn on why the row may get worse before it gets better

But due to an apparent administrative error at the government's Marine Management Organisation (MMO) - which manages English fishing capacity - the vessel is still being held in France.

Rupert Evelyn reported: "Sources close to the owners of the Cornelis-Gertjan tell me all the UK government need to do is pick up the phone and apologise to the French for their spreadsheet error."

Why was the vessel detained?

The scallop vessel Cornelis was ordered to divert to the port of Le Havre after the French authorities said it was fishing in French waters without a licence.

The French said that another British trawler had been fined for obstruction after refusing to allow police to board to carry out checks.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the row have involved the UK’s ambassador in Paris, Menna Rawlings, and Cabinet minister George Eustice.

Why is there a fishing dispute between the UK and France?

Fishing has been a major point of contention between the UK and the EU during and after Brexit negotiations, with the two sides struggling to agree on future rights in European waters.

Previous tensions with France over fishing rights prompted Royal Navy ships to be scrambled to Jersey amid concerns of a blockade of the island.

Most recently, the UK and Jersey turned down applications from dozens of French boats to fish in their waters in what Paris said was a breach of Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

France said it would seek support from Brussels for potential “retaliatory measures” and has also threatened to cut the UK off from energy supplies.

French ministers have warned they will block British boats from some French ports and tighten checks on vessels travelling between France and the UK if the issue is not resolved by Tuesday.

Environment Secretary Mr Eustice said the French threats appeared to breach international law and warned the UK would respond in an “appropriate and calibrated” manner if they were carried out.

A British fisherman who refused to be identified drinks aboard the British trawler kept by French authorities. Credit: AP

What has the vessel's owner said?

The owner of the Cornelis, Macduff Shellfish, said the vessel had been fishing legally in French waters and called on the British government to protect the rights of British fishermen.

Andrew Brown, director of sustainability and public affairs at Macduff, said: “It appears our vessel has been caught up in the ongoing dispute between the UK and France on the implementation of the Brexit fishing agreement.

“The Cornelis does have catch aboard. This may be confiscated by the French authorities unless a speedy resolution is achieved.

“We are looking to the UK Government to defend the rights of the UK fishing fleet and ensure that the fishing rights provided under the Brexit fishing agreement are fully respected by the EU.”

So, what's the UK government doing?

Boris Johnson’s government has condemned “unjustified” French threats and summoned the country’s ambassador in London.

In a sign of growing concern in Westminster, Brexit minister Lord Frost chaired a meeting to consider the government’s response.

“The proposed French actions are unjustified and do not appear to be compatible on the EU’s part with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) or wider international law,” a UK government spokesman said.

Priti Patel said the UK has "fulfilled all obligations" under the post-Brexit trade deal

“We regret the confrontational language that has been consistently used by the French government on this issue, which makes this situation no easier to resolve.

“We have raised our concerns strongly with both the French and the EU Commission.

“As a next step, the Foreign Secretary has instructed minister (Wendy) Morton to summon the French Ambassador.”

What has France said?

Earlier, France’s Europe minister Mr Beaune told French TV news channel CNews: “We have been extremely patient… our fishermen have been extremely responsible.

“And so, from November 2, it’s over: we will engage in dialogue if the British want to, but we are taking retaliatory measures.”

He added: “Now we need to speak the language of force because, unfortunately, that seems to be the only thing this British government understands.”

If the row is not resolved by November 2, France's sanctions could include:

  • Routine security checks on British boats

  • Banning British fishing vessels in some French ports

  • Reinforcement of customs and hygiene controls

  • Reinforcement of controls on lorries to and from the UK

French maritime minister Annick Girardin also told French radio news programme RTL Matin that Britain’s “failure to comply” with the Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) is “unacceptable”.

“It’s not war, it’s a fight,” she said. “The French and the fishermen have rights. An agreement was signed.

“We must enforce this agreement. We have fishing rights, we must defend them and we will defend them.”