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In Port-en-Bessin on France’s northern coast, Nicolas Cauvin loads his blue-and-white trawler up with potatoes, milk and baguettes for an eight-day trip out into British waters.
Cauvin normally gets about half of his catch from areas that will be out of bounds from Jan. 1 unless the U.K. and the European Union reach a trade deal in the next three weeks.
“We don’t know what’s in store for us,” Cauvin said, over the growl of diesel engines and the screech of the gulls. “A lot of fishing spots are going to be off limits.”
If Britain does leave the EU’s single market without an agreement, it will be in some part because of President Emmanuel Macron’s sensitivity to the fate of fishermen like Cauvin.
Macron has made access to British fishing grounds a key condition of any deal, while the U.K. government has vowed to take back control of its waters. With the negotiating teams in London this week for an intense final phase of talks, fishing rights has become a key sticking point.
Read More: Fish Are Chips in Post-Brexit Trade Bargaining
Before Brexit, vessels from other European Union countries landed two-thirds of the catch from British waters under a quota system that France and its EU partners want to maintain. The U.K. wants the formula to be updated to give its boats a greater share of the catch.
European officials say they think Macron will be ready to compromise — up to a point — and negotiators believe a deal is possible. One option might see the changes phased in or a number of years, or the British could offer better access to waters between 6 and 12 nautical miles from its shore, which were never under EU jurisdiction.
The fishing industry of northern France makes up less than 0.1% of the economy and provides just 7,500 jobs in a 30 million-strong workforce, but it has an out-sized impact on the national politics nevertheless.
The 2,000 residents of Port-en-Bessin have the Latin motto “res nostra mare” — the sea is our thing — and fishing is at the heart of their local economy. From the forklift-truck drivers at the fish auction to the marine-electronics store overlooking the harbor, most families are dependent on the port one way or another.
It’s a similar story in most of the 20-odd French ports dotted along the English Channel.
“A Brexit that goes wrong, an agreement that doesn’t allow for renewing the conditions we have now, could have a lasting impact on the economy,” said Port-en-Bessin Mayor Christophe Van Roye, who also runs the local fish auction as well as a cooperative selling seafarer’s clothing and fuel.
France’s minister of the sea, Annick Girardin, visited Port-en-Bessin on a rainy and windy morning in mid-October to reassure the locals that Macron won’t accept a trade deal that doesn’t protect their industry. And if there’s no deal, the government will be ready to support its fishermen, she said.
“This is what binds the local community together and brings everything to life,” she said. “Fishing is paramount for France.”
But after showing the minister around his 150-tonne trawler, named, perhaps ironically, L’Europe, Cauvin said he had been given little clue as to how the government will handle the negotiations.
“We’re being told nothing,” he said.
There is also a cultural aspect to Macron’s hard-line position.
While the popular caricature holds that Britons celebrate fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, France still reveres Auguste Escoffier’s 1903 culinary guide, which dedicated 160 pages to fish.
The president can ill afford to see a treasured industry take a hit at a time when the economy is on the brink of a second recession and he is already struggling for support among working class voters, suspicious of his metropolitan style.
“Fishermen are not the bulk of the electorate, and it’s not what will sink an election, but in terms of image it matters,” said Dimitri Rogoff, president of Normandy’s regional fishing committee. “There’s strong feeling for fishermen among the public.”
What’s more, if things do get difficult, the French industry has leverage.
More than three-quarters of the British catch is exported across the Channel. If French fishermen are shut out of U.K. waters, then not a single British fish will be allowed to unload in France, either by truck or by boat, said Sophie Leroy, a shipowner in Cherbourg who attended an early-morning meeting with Girardin.
“If they no longer want us to fish over there, their fish stays with them, no more exports, zero,” said Christophe Gouy, second-in-command on another trawler moored nearby. “We have to put the knife to their throat. We have no choice.”
— With assistance by Ian Wishart
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