Lord Frost also urges Paris ‘to step back from rhetoric and actions that make this more difficult’
Earlier this week, Paris threatened to introduce increased checks on British boats from its ports and a ban on seafood imports unless the issue over licences from small French vessels to fish in British waters is not resolved by Tuesday.
Ministers have warned of retaliatory measures if France presses ahead with the proposed sanctions, and Boris Johnson did not rule out the prospect of triggering a legal battle with the country — hinting at sending the dispute to independent arbitration — in a series of interviews at the G20 summit in Rome this weekend.
The post-Brexit trade deal includes a dispute resolution mechanism that allows controversies to be referred to an independent body if they cannot be resolved through diplomacy and direct talks.
Going further, Lord Frost posted in a series of tweets: “These threats, if implemented on 2 November, would put the EU in breach of its obligations under our trade agreement.
“So we are actively considering launching dispute settlement proceedings as set out in Article 738 of the TCA [Trade and Cooperation Agreement]”.
The Conservative peer added that the UK would “continue to talk constructively” to resolve the dispute, but also urged Paris “to step back from rhetoric and actions that make this more difficult”.
The minister’s remarks followed a letter from Jean Castex, the French prime minister, appealing to the EU for backing over the row and to use the “levers at its disposal” to press home the need for “compliance” with the Brexit agreement on fishing.
In correspondence with the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, Mr Castex also suggested that it should made clear “that leaving the [European] Union is more damaging than remaining there”, according to the BBC.
In response to the remarks, Lord Frost said he was “concerned and surprised”, adding: “I hope this opinion is not held more widely across the EU.
“To see it expressed in this way is clearly very troubling and very problematic in the current context when we are trying to solve many highly sensitive issues, including on the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
He went on: “This is all the more so as the threats made by France this week to our fishing industry, to energy supplies, and to future cooperation, eg through the Horizon research programme, unfortunately form part of a pattern that has persisted for much of this year.”
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, also suggested that Britain’s reliability as a partner was on the line over the row, telling The Financial Times: “Make no mistake, it’s not just the Europeans but all of their partners.
“Because, when you spend years negotiating a treaty and then a few months later you do the opposite of what was decide, on the aspects that suit you the least, it is not a big sign of your credibility”.
After a meeting with Ms von der Leyen on Saturday, Downing Street said the prime minister “raised his concerns about the rhetoric from the French government in recent days over the issue of fishing licences”.
A No 10 spokesperson added: “The prime minster stressed that the French threats are completely unjustified and do not appear to be compatible with the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement or wider international law.
“The prime minister reiterated that the UK has granted 98 per cent of licence applications from EU vessels to fish in the UK’s waters and is happy to consider any further evidence for the remaining 2 per cent.”
Mr Johnson is also expected to hold a brief meeting with Mr Macron on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome, on Sunday.