The row over post-Brexit fishing arrangements with France is “vanishingly unimportant” when compared with tackling climate change, Boris Johnson has said.
The Prime Minister insisted that the UK’s position had not changed in the dispute, which surrounds the number of fishing licences granted to small French vessels since the UK left the EU.
Mr Johnson said the UK would continue to work to resolve the disagreement, which led to France threatening action against British boats before Paris backed down on Monday night.
“By comparison with that hugely important issue, the ones you mentioned are really vanishingly unimportant, but since you ask about whether the UK has changed its position on the fishing issue, the answer is no.”
Earlier, Britain welcomed France having “stepped back” from threats to impose punitive action in the row.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said a meeting between Brexit minister Lord Frost and France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune in Paris on Thursday would be “very important”, as further talks with the EU are also scheduled.
But ahead of that meeting, the skipper of a Scottish-registered scallop dredger, the Cornelis Gert Jan, which had been held in Le Havre, is due to appear in a French court on Wednesday.
Earlier, Downing Street was forced to clarify a suggestion by Mr Eustice that the British vessel had been released, after it emerged that it remains in Le Havre.
But France suspended the threats at the 11th hour as negotiations continued.
The Associated Press reported that the deadline for action had now been extended to Thursday.
An official with the French presidency told the news agency on Tuesday that discussions “are advancing” and that France hopes to “move forward” from the fishing dispute to focus on bigger issues such as climate change.
“Neither us nor the British want this to go badly,” said the official, who AP was not authorised to name publicly.
Earlier, Mr Eustice told Sky News: “We welcome the fact France has stepped back from the threats it was making last Wednesday.
“We’ve always said we want to de-escalate this and always said we have an ever-open door to discuss any further evidence France or the EU might have on any additional vessels they’d like to have licensed.
“France has clearly taken a decision not to implement some of the decisions they threatened last Wednesday, we very much welcome that, but I think there’s going to be a very important meeting on Thursday between Lord Frost and his opposite number, not just on fisheries but a wider range of issues as well.”
Mr Eustice told broadcasters he understood the Cornelis Gert Jan “has now been released” following “administrative confusion” related to a change in the vessel’s engine.
Macduff Shellfish, the owner of the boat, was under the impression it would remain at Le Havre until at least after the hearing scheduled in Rouen on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The vessel concerned remains in port, having been detained by the French authorities.”
The European Union said that talks convened with officials from France, the UK, Jersey and Guernsey would continue on Tuesday.
On Monday night, just hours ahead of the deadline set by Paris, the French president was reported to have told journalists at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow: “Since this afternoon, discussions have resumed on the basis of a proposal I made to Prime Minister (Boris) Johnson.
“The talks need to continue. My understanding is that the British were going to come back to us tomorrow with other proposals. All that will be worked on.
“My wish is that we can find a way out on all these issues.”
The UK has granted licences to 98% of EU vessels that have requested permission to operate in British waters.
But the dispute centres on access for small boats of under 12 metres wishing to fish in the UK six-to-12 nautical mile zone.
The government in Paris was angry that the UK originally granted only 12 licences out of 47 applications for smaller vessels, a figure that has now risen to 18.
Only boats that can demonstrate they have fished in UK waters for one day in each of the years between 2012 and 2016 qualify for a licence.
On Tuesday, Mr Johnson said the UK Government’s position over the fishing row had not changed, when asked whether he had offered more generous terms to President Macron in order to keep talks alive.