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The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s role in the fishing row

·3 min read

Oh, what a lovely war! The summer silly season arrived early for the Brexiters and their Fleet Street cheerleaders, and didn’t they enjoy it! In a week that commemorated the death of Napoleon, and on the eve of today’s Europe Day, which celebrates peace and unity across a continent for which greater generations of Britons fought and died, they picked a foolish scrap with the French for old times’ sake, then claimed a spurious victory.

It sometimes seems nothing changes, which is just how Little Englanders like it. The sad thing is, they do not realise how very stupid – and deeply insular – they make Britain appear to the rest of the world. Thousands are dying each day in India. Real battles threaten communities around the globe. But what’s the big news for foreigner-baiting tabloids? The imaginary “Battle of St Helier”, a fake story told with sick relish, bad puns and shameful jingoism.

Let’s be clear. Boris Johnson gives not a fig for fish or fishers. From Cornwall to Scotland, Britain’s fisheries, which he vowed to protect, are being laid waste by his deceitful, damaging Brexit deal.

This same disastrous policy is imperilling Jersey’s fishers, whose access to traditional markets in France and beyond is obstructed by a seawall of paperwork. Far from making them captains of their fate, Brexit is sinking them fast.

French skippers who sailed to Jersey to protest about restrictive new licences in waters many of them have fished for generations are Johnson’s victims, too. Maybe some of them filled in the forms incorrectly. Perhaps the St Helier authorities failed to consult. It’s certain some French politicians absurdly over-reacted. But that’s all fixable. What cannot be fixed, regrettably, is the Brexit deal, the root cause of all these woes.

Yet Johnson, Brexit’s chief architect, has the effrontery to claim he is sticking up for British fishers against the cruel depredations of the French. Waving the flag, he sends in the Royal Navy, escalating the affair beyond all reason. And then, when the French sensibly go home, he smirkingly bows to the applause of grateful newsdesks.

Is this truly the level to which honest policymaking, sound political judgment and measured decision-making in Britain have sunk? It would appear so. It is entirely of a piece with what has gone before. Everyone, even Arlene Foster, now realises Johnson lied about a border in the Irish Sea. Day by day, the people of Northern Ireland pay the price in economic instability and violence.

Johnson’s attempts to wriggle out of agreements he himself made with the EU flout international law, damage Britain’s reputation and undermine trust. Little wonder Brussels and Paris reacted the way they did last week. For the first time in living memory, they face a British populist-nationalist demagogue who would rather appease his followers than stick to the truth. He is a national liability. Britain did not win the “Battle of St Helier”. The dispute is far from over. Jersey and Normandy fishers continue to suffer. Protesters may try to block UK exports at French ports, adding to the regulatory chaos caused by post-Brexit rules.

And just wait until Britain starts imposing licensing and other checks on EU imports from 1 January. This, writ large, is what Jersey is trying to do now. When that moment arrives, Johnson will have a real battle on his hands.

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