A dispute between Britain and France about fishing territories has escalated quickly. French authorities detained a British trawler on Thursday, October 28, and Britain promptly summoned the French ambassador for talks.
The broader subject right here is the licences now required below the brand new Brexit preparations. French fishermen complain that lots of their functions for these licences have been rejected, particularly by officers in Jersey. The French authorities has threatened to topic British fishing corporations to obfuscating forms, maybe to bar British fishing vessels from French ports, and even to chop off the facility provide to the Channel Islands. The British authorities, in the meantime, has threatened retaliatory measures. It has put Royal Navy vessels on standby in case French fishermen attempt to blockade these islands. Discussions to unravel the issue have seemingly obtained nowhere.
These occasions comply with earlier protests and stand-offs throughout Brexit negotiations – however additionally they have an extended historical past. The obvious comparability may be to the “cod wars” of the Fifties and Nineteen Seventies, when Britain’s function was reversed. Again then, Iceland ended a earlier settlement with Britain and excluded British fishermen from Icelandic territorial waters.
But conflicts about fishing date again even additional than that. The historical past of those arguments over territorial waters and entry to maritime sources may help us to grasp why these points stay iconic for contemporary nationwide id – and why the 2 governments have responded in such a dramatic manner.
Within the early 1600s, for instance, the Dutch republic possessed the most important fishing fleet in Europe. One Scottish lawyer, William Welwod, wrote that their overfishing within the North Sea threatened the marine shares of the world. However the pursuits of Britain’s rulers have been extra financial than ecological. They wished a slice of the motion and to problem Dutch dominance. The primary Stuart monarch who dominated over all the British kingdoms, James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England, Wales, and Eire), and his son Charles I, tried to impose new licences and taxes on Dutch fishing vessels, however the efforts of the Royal Navy – at the moment under-funded, ill-equipped, and inefficient – to implement this coverage bordered on the farcical. The nippier Dutch ships actually sailed rings round their British pursuers.
The ‘closed sea’
Later in that century the British and Dutch fought three wars for industrial and maritime supremacy. These insurance policies on fishing have been thus a part of a wider argument then raging about maritime sovereignty. It was a debate that turned foundational for contemporary worldwide legislation.
The dispute began with the Dutch lawyer and diplomat Hugo Grotius, who wrote that no person may management the ocean or forestall others from fishing and buying and selling. Grotius’s e book, Mare Liberum (the free sea), was aimed on the Portuguese empire, which was making an attempt to maintain the Dutch from buying and selling within the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, his concepts additionally went down badly in Britain.
Inspired by the Stuart monarchs, Welwod and different writers, most famously the lawyer and MP John Selden, responded to Grotius in defence of Britain’s territorial waters. Selden’s influential Mare Clausum (the closed sea) challenged Grotius and drew on historic examples to point out why states had a proper to assert elements of the ocean. Selden went again to the Romans and Greeks, talked about up to date states like Venice, and trawled medieval English historical past for appropriate, however usually doubtful, precedents, together with the Saxon king Alfred. Selden made a lot of Alfred’s shipbuilding programme, recorded in numerous Saxon chronicles, however these accounts have been almost certainly exaggerated. Alfred’s naval actions have been a lot much less profitable than his sympathetic chroniclers made out.
Nonetheless, even in style tradition has concerned rewriting historical past to justify British claims on the ocean. The well-known tune “Rule, Britannia!”, now repeated every year on the final night time of the Proms, was written within the 18th century as a part of a courtroom masque that portrayed Alfred (once more, quite questionably) as a naval hero, supposedly setting Britain on its path to maritime future.
These concepts have been after all simply manipulated for realpolitik. When the Dutch of their flip tried to bar the British from buying and selling within the Indian Ocean, British negotiators quoted Grotius’s writing at their Dutch counterparts (one among whom, mockingly, was Grotius himself). Grotius additionally modified his thoughts about openness, to a level, when exile from the Netherlands led him to serve the king of Sweden, one other monarch with sturdy views on maritime sovereignty.
By the 18th century, these disputes had resulted in a broad settlement about territorial waters in Europe (the “three-mile restrict”, primarily based on the vary of a cannon shot), along with a common acceptance that the ocean ought to in any other case be open.
All through the 18th and nineteenth centuries, with the British empire increasing and aggressively searching for new markets, the British authorities embraced the thought of free seas. Whereas Britain’s rulers didn’t abandon the thought of territorial waters, those that interrupted British commerce, usually by way of claims to their very own maritime sovereignty, have been branded as “pirates”, and sometimes destroyed.
These issues arose once more by way of the twentieth century, each by way of the event of weapons with a variety exceeding three miles, and with the rising significance of entry to undersea oil and different pure sources. Some nations have claimed territorial waters extending 200 miles out to sea, and whereas the United Nations Conference on the Legislation of the Sea of 1982 aimed to resolve a few of these points (and was influenced, partially, by the cod wars), a number of nations, together with the USA, have by no means formally ratified it.
If the present dispute about fishing revisits these earlier arguments in some methods, there may be additionally one vital distinction. Within the seventeenth and 18th centuries, fishing was economically very important to Britain. By 2019 the sector had declined to simply 0.02% of the nationwide economic system. It is usually depending on cooperation with the EU, with nearly half of the UK’s annual catch exported there.
The uncompromising place of each the British and French governments on this dispute would possibly due to this fact appear extreme. It does, nonetheless, mirror the continued symbolic standing of each fishing and maritime sovereignty – a standing that has been repeatedly debated since a minimum of the seventeenth century.
Richard Blakemore doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or group that may profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.