Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to calm stormy waters over fishing with France on Friday as he flew to Rome for a G20 summit, where he is due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron.
“France is one of our best, oldest, closest allies, friends and partners,” he told reporters travelling to the summit. “The ties that unite us, that bind us together, are far stronger than the turbulence that currently exist in the relationship.”
Johnson seemed to signal calm after days of increasingly tense rhetoric.
Earlier on Friday, the British government vowed to retaliate if Paris carried through on threats to block UK fishing ships from French ports amid an ongoing row over post-Brexit fishing licences.
Calling Macron a “friend,” Johnson said some people in both countries may be trying to stir up disharmony between the UK and France, but “I don’t think Emmanuel shares that perspective.”
But he also reiterated Britain’s willingness to respond to any violations of its divorce deal with the EU.
“British fishermen should be confident in going about their lawful business and they should be encouraged to continue fishing in accordance with the agreement,” meaning the Brexit deal, Johnson said. “And any infraction of that agreement … by any partner, whether the French or others, is something we would obviously need to respond to.”
Britain summoned the French ambassador to voice its displeasure after French authorities fined two British fishing vessels and kept one in port overnight Thursday.
'Two can play that game'
"We will see what they do,'' British Environment Secretary George Eustice told Sky News on Friday after Paris threatened to block UK fishing ships. "But if they do bring these into place, well, two can play at that game and we reserve the ability to respond in a proportionate way.''
London wants to speak with France's ambassador to the UK about the fishing row, in an official sign of displeasure.
Paris has threatened to retaliate next week after some French fishermen were denied permits to operate in UK waters.
France says around half of the requested licences have not been received. It accuses London of not respecting the Brexit deal.
"We regret the confrontational language that has been consistently used by the French government on this issue, which makes this situation no easier to resolve,'' the British government said.
The post-Brexit agreement with the European Union said fishermen could continue to fish in British waters if they obtained a licence and proved that they previously were fishing there.
Earlier this week, France's government spokesman Gabriel Attal said that from November 2 there would be increased customs checks on goods coming across the Channel, including a ban on unloading seafood at ports and checks on trucks, which could slow down trade.
The UK government said the threats were "disappointing" and "disproportionate".
"The threats from France are disappointing and disproportionate, and do not correspond to what one would expect from a close ally and partner," said a government spokesperson.
On Thursday, Clément Beaune, France's Europe minister, said: "I accept that we have made threats and maintained a dialogue. Now we have to speak the language of force because, unfortunately, this British government only understands that."
Later in the day, the head of British diplomacy, Liz Truss, instructed her Secretary of State for Europe, Wendy Morton, to "summon the French ambassador", announced a spokesman for the British government in a statement.
What's the France-UK fishing row about?
The UK announced in September that it had approved only 12 out of 47 new licence applications.
Authorities on the island of Jersey also turned down licence applications Wednesday from 75 French boats to operate in its waters.
Jersey, which is only 22 kilometres off the French coast, is a British Crown dependency outside of the UK. As such, it has its own powers with regard to who is allowed to fish in its territorial waters.
France considers the restrictions as contrary to the post-Brexit agreement that the British government signed with the European Union.
Since the UK left the economic orbit of the EU at the start of the year, relations between London and Paris have become increasingly frayed.
The fishing spat comes weeks after Paris was left furious by the decision of Australia to cancel a multibillion-dollar order for French submarines following a new defence pact with the UK and the US.
Months earlier, the French threatened to cut off power supplies to Jersey, which gets 95% of its electricity from France. At the time, dozens of French boats surrounded the island’s main port, St. Helier. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson even sent two Royal Navy patrol boats to Jersey.
The worry is that Jersey's latest decision might lead to something similar occurring again.
A more detailed look at Jersey's decision showed the island's government granted 64 licenses of the 170 French boats which applied. Another 31 boats are receiving temporary licenses to give them more time to prove they have a track record of fishing in Jersey waters and meet Jersey's interpretation of the UK-EU trade deal.
Boats not granted a license were given 30 days to get out of Jersey's waters.
Watch the full interview with Catherine Bernard, deputy director of the think-tank 'The UK in a Changing Europe', in the video player above.