Comment

Macron has overplayed his hand by holding Brexit to ransom over fish

The French president must know that his claims over British waters are far weaker than he pretends

Emmanuel Macron has walked into a Brexit trap. Even those most sympathetic to the EU can see that his maximalist claims on sovereign British waters amount to indefensible overreach and "cakeism".

It is self-evidently incoherent for Paris to argue that everything changes for Britain after withdrawal - to the point of aggressive ‘cumulation’ rules on car parts, and the skinniest of access for services - while at the same time insisting that Britain must remain a prisoner of the Common Fisheries Policy.

There is a whiff of neo-imperial coercion in Mr Macron’s threat to block a Brexit trade deal unless the UK gives way on this emotive issue, and his petulant diplomacy is clearly causing irritation at the Kanzleramt.

The coverage in the German press over recent days has been strikingly neutral or even friendly to the British point of view.

The Handelsblatt asks how he can expect to perpetuate a regime in which French trawlers are entitled to 84pc of the catch off Cornwall while Cornish fishermen are left with just 9pc. It marvelled at a relationship where European boats can come to within six nautical miles of the British coast while British boats must abide by the EU’s 12-mile rule.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said pointedly last week that the recent accord between the UK and Norway on fishing was a sign of Britain’s “constructive” approach, and implies that “agreements can be found”.

“In private, the Germans are very worried,” said Charles Grant from the Centre for European Reform. “Macron is going to come under intense pressure to give ground, but he is so arrogant and bloody-minded that he may just go it alone as did over the 6-month Brexit extension.”

The talk en coulisse is that Mr Macron actively wants to scupper a deal, calculating that a chaotic smash-up will force the UK back to the table quickly and on abject terms.  But to take such a gamble at a delicate moment for the eurozone economy is to play with fire.

Fishing is the one issue in the traumatic saga of Brexit where Britain is seen to hold the high ground and where the EU knows that it is in an awkward position. That is not least because the CFP itself is a byword for wanton ecological abuse  - “not fit for purpose” in the words of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. 

The more that fisheries become the emotional focus of the final negotiating showdown, the more it strengthens Boris Johnson’s hand. It alters the political chemistry of the post-Brexit blame game if the talks collapse, and therefore makes his threat to walk away and go ‘Australian’ that much more credible.

Ministers from several EU states cajoled France and the coalition of fishing states to give ground at a meeting in Brussels this week. Michel Barnier has been pleading for more negotiating leeway from his masters to break the impasse, so far to no avail.

The Élysée line is that France will not negotiate “like carpet merchants” over the future of French trawlermen.

Enforcer Clement Beaune said acceptance of EU quota demands was the “sine qua non” for British access to the EU’s single market. 

This démarche would be more credible if the EU was in fact offering much access beyond what is already guaranteed under World Trade Organisation law, and if the EU itself was not seeking reciprocal access to UK markets in order to protect its £95bn annual bilateral trade surplus. That includes £48bn of car exports and £20bn of farm goods that would be hit by prohibitive tariffs without a deal. 

A compromise is there for the taking. Britain no longer has a fishing fleet large enough to trawl its own waters. Most of the North Sea catch caught by boats of all nationalities and processed in Grimsby is exported to the EU.

What the Government wants is a recognition of sovereignty, not a ban on French trawlers. It has proposed a three-year transition with annual quotas. 

“To let this collapse over mackerel would be absurd. Everybody knows there is scope for a deal and that is what will happen,” said Andrew Duff, a veteran MEP and president of the Spinelli Group in Brussels.

Mr Duff said the ritual brinkmanship by both sides should be taken with heaps of salt. Britain has already agreed quietly - and shrewdly - to an independent regulator for state aid. 

The EU has insisted on this level-playing field guarantee to head off what it imagines to be a Singapore on the Thames. In reality it may turn back against the EU itself, since France, Germany, and Italy are the chief abusers of state aid. The UK would be able to take them to task in the post-Brexit joint committee, and ultimately in the appeal tribunal.  

My own view is that the EU cannot afford the risk of no deal, given the interlinked supply-chains and the role of London as Europe’s banker.

The Continent faces a roaring second wave of Covid-19 and the prospect of a double-dip recession in a string of states, threatening to expose yet again the simmering pathologies of the eurozone.

The European Central Bank has allowed Euroland to slide into a deflationary vicious circle. It has no tools left beyond a rain dance on negative rates.

The sovereign-bank ‘doom-loop’ of 2012 is back with a vengeance as lenders gobble up the massive Covid issuance of near insolvent governments.

The further the ECB goes with bond purchases,  the closer it gets to the political limit for a central bank answering to confederate states split into creditor and debtor blocs. Yet if the ECB stops buying the system blows up.

The €750bn recovery fund is a red herring. Italy and other Club Med states refuse to touch the loan component because of Troika-like conditions. The money will not kick in until late 2021 and will then be spread across the EU until 2026.

It may be of interest to those fascinated by the institutional architecture of the EU  - it is a new Brussels slush fund, after all - but it has no economic relevance in the time-frame that will soon shape Europe’s political future.

Boris Johnson is not alone in facing near revolt over pandemic policies. Mr Macron’s test and trace scheme has been panned by the French media as a fiasco, and Marseilles is at war with Paris. France has also been one of Europe’s worst hit countries in the pandemic.

Holland’s Mark Rutte has made such a mess of his response that the Dutch are back to testing only those at high risk. He has been diminished by his campaign against masks - now reversed - and has been forced into semi-lockdown by exploding cases.  

Political patience is running low across Europe. The region is being left behind in jobless stagnation as China and the US decouple and run away with the 2020s.    

If Brexit talks unravel over fish, EU leaders would have to explain to the world why they insisted on such terms and what it is about Europe’s decision-making that it cannot reach a minimalist trade deal with its close neighbour. 

They would have to explain to their own struggling farmers, car-makers, and small firms why they have just been hit with a fresh and unnecessary hammer blow. 

It would be a hard political sell for a caste of Europe's leaders already in trouble. Mr Macron must know that his hand is weaker than he pretends.