The United Kingdom and France, two of the United States’ closest allies, have been at odds lately, more so than usual. In May, the two countries sparred over fishing rights in the English Channel, setting off a short-lived naval clash. Then, in August, relations between the two countries took another hit when the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia announced the establishment of a trilateral security partnership to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines, leaving France blindsided by the announcement. Then, in late October – just before the G-20 meeting in Rome – tempers flared over fishing rights once again. The recent rows between France and the United Kingdom are not over fishing rights and AUKUS. The fight goes much deeper than these skirmishes with roots in hurt feelings on both sides over Brexit.
To Fish or Not to Fish?
Over the last six months or so, the French and British governments have disagreed vehemently over fishing rights in the English Channel. The latest tiff centers on French boats fishing in waters in the English coast, something French fisherman have done for hundreds of years. When the United Kingdom officially left the European Union, the two parties hammered out a deal which governed fishing in the disputed waters, stating that European fishers may continue to fish in some British waters if they are able to prove that they were already fishing there prior to Brexit.
Yet, both sides interpret the agreement differently. The French believe, as the agreement states, that there fishman are allowed to continue fishing in the English Channel as long as they can prove that they fished there before Brexit. The British contend that the French fisherman must provide positional data to show their fishing activity as well as a record of the catches. France has threatened to escalate the agreement further unless the United Kingdom issues the necessary licenses to operate in British waters. While France and the United Kingdom may be tussling over fishing, the root of the disagreement goes much deeper than fishing.
Relations between the United Kingdom and France soured over the past few months, especially after the September announcement. The AUKUS announcement, causing Australia to cancel a $37 billion contract with France to provide diesel submarines, left France outraged. France felt blindsided by the AUKUS alliance announcement. For one, some of its closest allies excluded France from a lucrative deal that further cemented the bonds of the Anglo alliance. France also viewed the announcement as a rebuff of its aspirations in the Asia-Pacific.
The United Kingdom, on the other hand, viewed the deal as way to strengthen its ties in the Indo-Pacific region as a part of its Global Britain strategic vision. Publicly, the United Kingdom has tried to smooth over the tensions that arose with France as a result of AUKUS. Privately, however, it has been a different story as British officials have largely dismissed French complaints. Once again, the two countries find themselves in a squabble, but the roots of the disagreement go much deeper than submarines.
A Power Imbalance
The recent skirmishes between the United Kingdom and France – fishing rights and AUKUS – go much deeper than the surface level disagreements. At its heart, these scuffles are fundamentally about Brexit. France, for its part, wants to prove that Brexit has not worked. The United Kingdom’s official departure from the European Union in 2020 – with the United Kingdom and European Union still arguing over what the post-Brexit relationship would look like – left France in a precarious position. It upset the delicate balance of power that existed between the union’s three most powerful states: the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
French President Emmanuel Macron is now struggling to “assert France’s leadership in a Europe dominated by Germany.” In short, France saw the United Kingdom as a favorable counterbalance to Germany’s continued dominance in European affairs. Beyond the power imbalance, France perceived Brexit as the United Kingdom’s confirmation that its special relationship with the United States outweighed the importance of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. The AUKUS announcement further compounded this insecurity.
The Restoration of Sovereignty, or Not?
Moreover, the United Kingdom is trying to prove that Brexit did work. The fight over fishing rights and AUKUS represent a much larger battle, one over its damaged relationship with the European Union. The United Kingdom has had a rocky relationship with the European Union since it first entered the union in 1973. In an effort to convince voters to vote to leave the European Union, Brexiteers often provided contradictory messaging on Brexit, promising voters before the referendum in 2016 that the United Kingdom would restore the sovereignty lost to the European Union. For example, without the regulations of the single market, the United Kingdom is free to set its own rules. Without participation in the customs union, the United Kingdom is free to pursue trade deals with any country it chooses without needing EU buy in.
Now, Brexit supporters are trying to prove, through its Global Britain strategy, that the United Kingdom can indeed flourish outside of the European Union. However, the British are now finding that life outside the European Union is not as great as originally advertised by those in favor of Brexit.