The maritime drama off Jersey kept Britain entertained on Thursday as each of the actors played the parts and recited the lines that have been crowd-pleasers down the ages. 200 years after the death of Napoleon, the British audience saw France slipping easily into its centuries-old character of the eternal adversary while for the French, Britain was performing the only role it knows by heart, that of la perfide Albion.
Claude La Vaullée, a French fisherman who has been fishing off Jersey for 40 years, fluffed his lines when he told Ouest France that the flotilla of fishing boats advancing on Jersey was ready to “re-stage the Battle of Trafalgar”, apparently forgetting how it turned out.
Jonathan Ruff, a property developer who hopes to open a casino and a strip club in Jersey, sailed out in his pleasure boat to confront what he called “the invaders”. But as he approached the flotilla one of the French trawlers decided to head straight towards him.
“I couldn’t believe what he was doing. He deliberately sped up and went straight for me, clipping my bow. If he had hit my engine I would have been in big, big trouble, I could have lost the boat and anything could have happened.
“They were out of order, and if it wasn’t for some quick evasive action my boat could have been at the bottom of the channel. He must have known that I would have come off worse if he had hit me – he’s a steel trawler and my boat is only a little pleasure craft. It was totally reckless of him,” he told the Sun
“I was just sticking up for the island and doing my patriotic duty. The French shouldn’t be blockading the harbour. If the freight ferry doesn’t leave then we will be running low on supplies within a few days.”
Downing Street, which has been running through spokesmen at a hectic pace in recent weeks, might consider employing Ruff next time there’s a vacancy so perfectly does he channel the government’s attitude to the EU after Brexit. Like Ruff, Britain repeatedly embarks on reckless assaults against its former partners in Europe, only to retreat complaining about the unfairness of it all when the Europeans strike back.
Although Britain has actually breached the agreement Boris Johnson signed with the EU last Christmas, even the threat of retaliatory action from Europe is enough to set off a carnival of self-pity in London.
French maritime minister Annick Girardin lit the latest fuse on Tuesday when she pointed out that Jersey’s energy is supplied by underwater cables from France, and that the trade agreement allowed for retaliation.
“We are ready to use these retaliatory measures. Europe, France has the means, it is written into the agreement. So as far as Jersey is concerned, I would remind you, for example, of the transport of electricity by submarine cables. So we have the means, and sorry it has come to this, we will do so if we have to.”
The agreement does not in fact allow for the kind of retaliation Girardin was suggesting, but she gave the British an opportunity to condemn her for making “unacceptable and disproportionate” threats.
Johnson’s idea of an proportionate response was to send HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, royal navy patrol ships more than 90m long, each with two large guns, including a short-range anti-aircraft weapon, and usually crewed by 45 sailors and up to 50 marines.
It does not take the most jaded cynic to notice that the deployment came on the eve of local elections in England and parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales, and that it may have done Johnson no harm with part of his electoral base.
And as the French fishermen went home on Thursday afternoon, there were signs of compromise as Jersey’s government said all sides were seeking a solution.
But this is unlikely to be the last or the most dangerous of Johnson’s skirmishes with Europe as he seeks to escape the more inconvenient commitments he entered into last Christmas.
His problem is that although a belligerent attitude to Europe plays well with many of his voters and most of his MPs, it is at odds with the rest of his foreign policy agenda.
This week Britain chaired a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting that produced a strong statement of unity in criticising Russia and China, and Johnson is banking on a successful leaders’ summit in June to launch Global Britain on the world stage. Sending a couple of gunboats to confront your closest military ally in Europe is not an ideal first step to ensuring a triumphant debut.