Did the French PM really ask for the EU to ‘punish’ the UK over Brexit?

3 November 2021
What was claimed

The French Prime Minister wrote to the President of the European Commission asking the EU to punish the UK for Brexit.

Our verdict

The letter did not use the word “punish”. But it did call on the EU to take action against the UK with respect to the latest fishing row, which some could interpret as punishment for Brexit.

Amid rising tensions between the UK and France in a row over fishing, POLITICO reported on a leaked letter sent from French Prime Minister Jean Castex to the President of the European Commission last week. 

The letter called on the President, Ursula von der Leyen, and the EU to take action. But precisely what action was called for has become a matter of controversy. 

Media organisations including the Telegraph, the Express and LBC (which wrongly attributed the letter to French President Emmanuel Macron) reported that the letter effectively called for the UK to be ”punished” for Brexit. Others, including the BBC, disagreed—though in some cases acknowledged it could be interpreted that way

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What did the letter actually say?

The relevant parts of the letter, in the original French, start:

Il paraît donc nécessaire que l’Union européenne montre sa totale détermination à obtenir le plein respect de l’accord par le Royaume-Uni et fasse valoir ses droits en utilisant les leviers à sa disposition de manière ferme, unie et proportionnée. Il est indispensable de montrer clairement aux opinions publiques européennes que le respect des engagements souscrits n’est pas négociable et qu’il y a davantage de dommages à quitter l’Union qu’à y demeurer.

POLITICO journalist Alex Wickham summarised this as saying: “France tells Brussels it must demonstrate that Britain has been damaged by leaving the EU.”

Additionally, Mr Wickham reported that France “says Britain must be damaged by Brexit” and “calls on the EU to cause ‘damage’ to Britain”.

The letter does ask the EU to demonstrate Britain has been disadvantaged by leaving the EU.

The key line appears to be the final sentence of the paragraph shown above, in which the French PM says it is essential to show the European public that there are more “dommages” to leaving the Union than to remaining in it. 

There’s some debate over how best to translate “dommages”. We spoke to three French speakers—a researcher, a journalist and an academic—who all said they believe “dommages” is most accurately translated as “drawbacks” or “disadvantages” rather than “damages”. However Dr Edward Arnold, Professor of French at Trinity College Dublin, did translate “dommages” as “damaging” in a translation produced for Irish fact checkers thejournal.ie.

His translation of that paragraph reads: 

It would thus appear necessary that the EU shows its absolute determination to obtain the UK’s full compliance with the agreement and also asserts its rights through recourse to all means at its disposal in a firm, unified and proportional manner. It is indispensable to show clearly to European public opinion that the respect of commitments entered into is not negotiable and it is as damaging to leave the Union as it is to stay in it.

Alternatively, Dr Eamon Maher, Director of the National Centre for Franco Irish Studies, suggested the final line of this paragraph could be translated to: “It is vital to demonstrate clearly to European public opinion that any commitments undertaken by either side are non-negotiable and that leaving the EU is more damaging than staying in it”. 

What action did the letter go on to call for?

Debate over whether Mr Castex called on the EU to punish the UK for Brexit has largely focused on the paragraph above, which doesn’t say this. However, the letter does go on to ask the EU to take action against the UK with reference to the fishing row.  

The matter stems from a disagreement between the UK and France over the interpretation of rules governing fishing as part of the UK-EU post-Brexit relationship. Boats must show evidence they fished in British waters before Brexit to obtain a licence to continue doing so, but the French have argued the British evidential threshold is too high, meaning in its view too few French ships are being granted licences. It has threatened various punitive measures over the disagreement. 

In the letter, Mr Castex goes on to ask that if a satisfactory solution cannot be found, the EU should introduce tariffs (“droits de douane”). 

Although the word “punish” isn’t used explicitly, this could be seen to amount to punishing the UK, whether fairly or unfairly, which may explain some of the headlines prompted by the letter. Whether this would be punishment for Brexit itself, or for failing to, in the French view, meet the terms of the Brexit settlement—and whether those are separate things—is a matter of interpretation.

Image courtesy of Florian David, via Wikimedia Commons.

Update 17 January 2022

We have added an additional translation of Mr Castex’s letter which may more accurately reflect his comments.

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