France frees UK trawler caught up in Channel fishing dispute

LONDON (AP) — A British-registered scallop boat caught up in a post-Brexit spat between the U.K. and France over fishing licenses has been released by French authorities, its owner said Wednesday.

Andrew Brown, head of public affairs for Macduff Shellfish, which owns the scallop dredger, said the Cornelis Gert Jan had departed Le Havre in northern France. French maritime police seized the vessel off the Normandy coast last week and detained its skipper and crew.

The boat, which was detained over a paperwork infraction, has become a symbol of a bigger feud between the U.K. and France over fishing rights in the English Channel since the U.K. withdrew from the European Union..

“We are pleased to have this matter resolved and delighted that our crew and vessel are now able to return home,” Brown said. “The crew have acted with calmness and professionalism throughout the entire incident. They are in good spirits, looking forward to return to their loved ones and are grateful for all the messages of support received from the British public.”

The French and British governments have traded threats and allegations for weeks over French demands for licenses to fish in U.K. waters. France complained that dozens of its boats were denied licenses to fish in waters around Britain and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, which are self-governing British Crown dependencies close to the coast of northern France.

Fishing is a tiny industry economically for both countries but with outsized political importance, and the dispute has mushroomed into an important test for Britain’s relations with the European Union after Brexit.

France has threatened to close its ports to some British boats and to impose strict checks on boats and trucks carrying U.K. goods, if more licenses are not granted. Paris also at one point suggested it might restrict energy supplies to the Channel Islands, which are heavily dependent on French electricity.

The French government originally said it would impose the sanctions if no resolution on the license dispute emerged by Tuesday. It pushed back the deadline, and then said Wednesday that the measures were on hold at least through Friday, while talks involving French, British and EU officials continue.

Britain says a blockade would breach the Brexit withdrawal agreement and that the issue behind the dispute is is a technical one related to some French boats’ lack of paperwork to prove they have traditionally fished in the areas where they want to keep working.

But France sees it as a matter of principle, and has accused Britain of breaching its legally binding divorce deal with the European Union, which sets the rules for fishing in the post-Brexit era..

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were peppered with questions about the diplomatic dustup as they attended a Group of 20 summit in Rome and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow over the past week.

The impounded trawler is not one of the vessels involved in the licensing dispute, according to the captain’s lawyer. Mathieu Croix, the lawyer for skipper Jondy Ward, said a French court on Wednesday ordered the boat’s release.

The court in Rouen annulled last week’s seizure, Croix told The Associated Press. French maritime authorities, who seized the boat in the Le Havre port last week, did not immediately respond to the ruling.

Croix said the dredger was “caught in a political game”

“There is a whole story spun around this entire case, whereas in fact, it is a rather mundane affair over fishing in an area that is supposedly out of bounds and about licenses that may or may not have been given and catch amounts that are relatively modest,“ Croix said.

“From then on, given the current political climate, the case blew up to levels that in our view are totally disproportionate,” he said.

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Charlton reported from Paris.

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Follow AP’s Brexit coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/brexit

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