A dispute between the UK and France over post-Brexit fishing rights has escalated significantly after a meeting between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, with Downing Street rejecting a French claim that the two leaders had agreed a path towards resolving the issue.
Johnson and the French president met alone for half an hour on Sunday morning on the fringes of the G20 summit in Rome, where they discussed the fishing row, as well as tensions over Northern Ireland and this week’s Cop26 climate summit.
In an unusual turn of events, Downing Street denied French officials’ claim that the two countries had agreed to work on “practical and operational measures” to resolve the dispute in the coming days.
In a post-G20 press conference, Macron said Britain must give ground or France would trigger threatened trade reprisals this week. “The ball is in Britain’s court. If the British make no movement, the measures of 2 November will have to be put in place,” he said.
The disagreement threatens to distract from the vital climate summit in Glasgow, where Johnson will greet more than 120 world leaders on Monday.
After the two leaders had met, with no officials present, Macron’s staff talked about “space for de-escalation in the coming hours”. But Johnson’s spokesman denied any agreement had been reached, or that there were even formal plans for more talks to discuss the situation.
“It will be for the French to decide whether they want to step away from the threats they have made in recent days about breaching the Brexit agreement,” he said. “Of course, we would welcome that if they want to de-escalate the threats that they have made.”
Asked if this meant no agreement had been reached, the spokesperson said: “You would have to ask the French government about whether they want to proceed with the threats they have made.”
Questioned about the comments by French officials’ comments that the leaders had agreed to more “exchanges” between the two sides, Johnson’s spokesman said: “If the French government wishes to come forward with how they want to de-escalate the threats that they have made, then we would absolutely welcome them.”
Boris Johnson sought to slightly play down divisions at a post-G20 press conference, saying only: “The position is unchanged.” However, he did profess himself “puzzled” by a letter that the French prime minister, Jean Castex, sent to Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, seeking an EU-wide response to the row.
Johnson also said the letter called for the UK to be “punished for leaving the EU”, which is not the case, with Castex giving the standard EU line about it having to be shown that being outside the EU could not have the same advantages of being a member.
Downing Street officials declined to say why, in their view, the French had given a seemingly misleading account of the meeting, but they did raise the possibility that the “mooted” exchanges were simply a reference to more standard, lower-level contact between officials that would be expected anyway.
Before the meeting, France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, argued in a Twitter thread that the UK seemed to be making a “political choice” to target French fishing boats, saying that while 90% of overall EU requests were granted, “all the missing ones are French”, meaning 40% of French requests had not yet been approved.
Johnson’s spokesperson rejected this: “We’ve seen comments ahead of the meeting from Clément Beaune that were completely untrue to suggest that all outstanding licence decisions are for French vessels.
“We’re applying a reasonable, evidence-based approach to all EU vessels, irrespective of what member state they belong to.”