Tonga goes into lockdown after repatriation flight brings first case of Covid-19. Egypt lifts state of emergency but new laws give more powers to the president and military. Japan’s new leader Fumio Kishida secures election win. By Jonathan Pearlman.

British fishing trawler sparks diplomatic row with France

French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the G20 summit in Rome.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the G20 summit in Rome.
Credit: Reuters / Guglielmo Mangiapane

Great power rivalry

France: Late last month, a British trawler, Cornelis Gert Jan, was dredging for scallops off the coast of Normandy when it was seized by French authorities, who claimed it did not have a fishing licence.

The dispute quickly escalated. Britain demanded the release of the ship and put its navy on standby, and France threatened to impose border checks on British imports and to restrict entry to British boats. On Monday, Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said Britain would “retaliate accordingly” and insisted that France back down.

The feud is of relatively little consequence to either country’s economy but is part of a worsening breakdown in their relations since Britain moved to leave the European Union.

In recent months, France has expressed anger that Britain has been trying to renegotiate part of its withdrawal deal from the EU. Ties further deteriorated when Britain and the United States agreed to supply nuclear submarines to Australia, which abandoned its lucrative submarines contract with France. Adding to the tensions, a leaked letter from French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the EU needed to show through the fishing dispute that Britain would suffer more from Brexit than from remaining in the EU.

The fishing quarrel has raised concerns that the deteriorating relationship could affect the workings of groups such as NATO and the G7 – in which Britain and France are leading members – and may lead to an overall weakening of the West.

On Tuesday, London and Paris arrived at a truce as Britain offered France more fishing licences and France retracted its threats of sanctions. France also released Cornelis Gert Jan, which departed for Britain on Wednesday.

But French president Emmanuel Macron’s early departure from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, being hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, prompted speculation that he had left the talks due to the dispute.

On Tuesday, Johnson said the fishing feud was “vanishingly unimportant” compared with the need to address climate change. But, asked whether Britain had changed its position on the standoff, Johnson said: “The answer is no.” 

The neighbourhood

Tonga: On Tuesday, Tonga entered its first lockdown of the pandemic after recording its first case of Covid-19 – a passenger who had flown from New Zealand and tested positive in hotel quarantine.

The seven-day lockdown, including an 8pm to 6am curfew, was imposed on the main island of Tongatapu. Tonga, which has about 106,000 residents, has recorded no locally transmitted cases.

Most Pacific Island nations have imposed strict border and quarantine controls during the pandemic to address concerns that the virus could overwhelm their health systems and spread to remote islands and townships. Nauru, Niue and Tuvalu are among the last countries in the world to have recorded no local Covid-19 transmissions.

The case in Tonga has prompted a rush to get vaccinated. In the five days after the infected traveller arrived on a repatriation flight from Christchurch, more than 7000 people were vaccinated.

But the government, which confirmed the case last Friday, has been criticised for taking too long to order a lockdown. By Tuesday, many residents had already opted to stay in their homes.

Democracy in retreat

Egypt: In April 2017, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared a state of emergency after 47 people were killed in the bombings of two churches. The declaration, which gave the government unchecked powers to censor the media, conduct surveillance and detain people indefinitely, was supposed to last three months and be renewable once. El-Sisi kept it in place until late last month.

The decision to lift the state of emergency, which has been in place for most of the past four decades, raised hopes that Egypt might finally ease its curbs on dissent and human rights. But the government last Sunday passed new laws to expand the power of the president and the military.

Since leading a military takeover in 2013, el-Sisi, a former military chief, has introduced laws that allow authorities to ban protests, impose curfews and restrict the activities of non-government organisations and civil rights groups. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of journalists, activists and government critics are currently in prison on politically motivated charges.

The new laws are set to give additional powers to the military and police to control infrastructure such as oil fields, bridges and railways. The military already plays a broad role in Egypt’s economy, including involvement in childcare, car-manufacturing, bread and pasta-making, and cattle-herding.

Spotlight: Japan’s new PM

Since becoming leader of Japan’s ruling party in September, Fumio Kishida, a soft-spoken former banker and veteran MP, has tried to persuade the public that he is more than a colourless bureaucrat. But he has largely failed.

The 64-year-old, whose father and grandfather were both MPs, famously damaged an earlier bid last year to lead the Liberal Democratic Party when he posted a photo on Twitter of himself wearing a suit and tie and being served dinner by his wife, who was wearing an apron. But he eventually became party leader and prime minister after the resignation of Yoshihide Suga, who was criticised over his handling of the pandemic and his decision to proceed with holding the Olympic Games.

Typically, the appointment of new prime ministers in Japan leads to sharemarket rallies, but Kishida was greeted by eight consecutive days of drops. And his approval ratings have been about 50 per cent, the lowest for a new leader in decades.

Despite his bumpy start, Kishida secured victory for the LDP at a national election last weekend. The party, which has ruled Japan almost continuously for more than 60 years, won 261 seats in the 465-member lower house. The LDP lost 15 seats, but the result was seen as a victory for Kishida, who has promised measures to assist those affected by the pandemic, such as students, business owners and the unemployed.

Kishida, a centrist, has signalled plans to address income inequality and to adopt more forgiving economic policies than during the growth-obsessed era of Shinzō Abe. He is also expected to push for higher military spending to address concerns about tensions involving North Korea and Taiwan.

On Monday, Kishida told reporters: “We need to take the many criticisms seriously … and we will be implementing our policies with a sense of speed.”

But Kishida may also need to address growing indifference towards Tokyo’s ruling class. At the election, the voter turnout was 56 per cent, one of the lowest since World War II. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 6, 2021 as "British fishing trawler sparks diplomatic row with France".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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