Boris Johnson told Emmanuel Macron on Sunday to “withdraw his threats” to impose more onerous border checks and criticised the French president for a leaked official letter that suggested the UK should be punished for leaving the EU.
Macron and Johnson held a 30-minute tête-à-tête on the margins of the G20 summit in Rome. Downing Street’s statement following the meeting contrasted with that from the Elysée Palace, which said both leaders agreed to work constructively to de-escalate the dispute over post-Brexit fishing licences.
Number 10 said that Johnson expressed his “deep concern over the rhetoric emanating from the French government in recent days including the suggestion by the French prime minister that the UK should be punished for leaving the EU”.
The UK prime minister told Macron he hoped that France would “de-escalate this rhetoric and withdraw their threats”, Downing Street said.
The Elysée statement said Macron called on Johnson to stick to the rules set out in the Brexit agreement and for their dialogue to be conducted with “high standards, seriousness and respect”. French officials said the pair would work on “practical measures” in “the next few days” to promote a de-escalation in the fishing dispute.
The exchange followed a leaked letter from French prime minister Jean Castex, who called on the EU to take further steps in the fishing row. He wrote that the bloc must show there is “more damage to leaving the EU than remaining there”.
Whitehall insiders suggested that the letter had “ruined all trust” between the UK and France. One British government official described it as “the punishment letter”.
In an interview with the Financial Times on Friday, Macron warned that the international reputation of the UK was at stake in the dispute over fishing rights and warned that other nations were watching closely.
“Make no mistake, it is not just for the Europeans but all of their partners,” Macron said. “Because when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decided on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility.”
Tensions over fishing rights have been simmering for months after the UK failed to issue permits for some small French boats to fish in British waters under the Brexit agreement.
Paris on Wednesday announced it would increase customs and sanitary controls on freight, make stricter checks of trucks coming in and leaving France, and ban trawlers from landing their catch in French ports if the dispute was not resolved by Tuesday.
France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, took to Twitter on Sunday to complain that “we do not lack just a few licences, but more than 40 per cent of French detailed requests”.
“After 10 months, when such a significant amount of licences, targeting one country, is missing, it’s not a technical issue, it’s a political choice and a breach of the TCA [Trade and Cooperation Agreement],” he wrote.
Beaune added that France had called for action at the EU level and “stands ready to implement proportionate and reversible measures from November 2”.
Lord David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit minister, said on Twitter on Saturday that the UK would launch dispute resolution proceedings if France implemented further checks on fishing vessels and at the border.
“We will continue to talk constructively to try to resolve all the differences between us, and we urge the EU and France to step back from rhetoric and actions that make this more difficult,” he tweeted.
The former UK ambassador to France, Lord Peter Ricketts, said he believed the relationship between France and the UK was at its lowest point in his diplomatic career, surpassing the dispute over the Iraq war in 2003.
“It’s a case of total collapse of confidence, after so many cases where the British government hasn’t respected its word,” he told the FT.
“The prospect now is of real economic damage and a spiral downwards,” he said.
“Politically there has been little motivation for this to settle because it’s convenient to have a row with France to distract attention, and convenient to show base supporters [the UK government is] being tough on France.”