Prime minister Boris Johnson spoke with Jersey’s political leaders on Wednesday and said any blockade would be “unjustified”, according to a statement from the government. It followed the French maritime minister’s hint on Tuesday that France could cut off electricity supplies to Jersey in retaliation for restrictions the self-governing island has imposed on French vessels.
At the centre of the dispute is post-Brexit arrangements for the shared waters in the 13-mile stretch between France and Jersey. New licences were issued on Friday, the last day of a four-month grace period after Brexit, which ended the 200-year-old Granville Bay treaty on shared fishing rights.
The British patrol ships are of a type that is generally armed with 20mm and 30mm guns and can carry 45 crew with as many as 50 Royal Marines, according to the ministry of defence website. The two vessels are being sent as a precautionary measure, the UK said.
The French government is following the situation closely and is in touch with the British, according to a French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Any blockade would be completely unjustified,” the UK statement said. “The prime minister and chief minister stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions and for dialogue between Jersey and France on fishing access.”
Deployment of the ships marks a striking escalation of tensions between two Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) allies and is a sign of ongoing frictions caused by Britain’s departure from the European Union. Negotiations over fish were one of the most contentious elements of the post-Brexit accord, and France has separately threatened to limit access for UK financial services companies into the EU if its fishing boats weren’t treated fairly.
Tensions rose earlier this week after France’s maritime minister, Annick Girardin, said she was “revolted“ when she heard that Jersey had granted fishing licenses that included extra conditions and criteria which were not compliant with the Brexit deal. Ms Girardin said she had flagged the non-compliance to the European Commission.
“We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures” that are in the Brexit accord, she told lawmakers in the National Assembly on Tuesday.
France’s response has been described as “pretty close to an act of war” by fishing community leaders in St Helier. They say they have been told 100 boats are being lined up in France for a 6am blockade at the main Channel Island port on Thursday, threatening food and energy supplies.
“It was inevitable that the French would kick off,” said the head of the Jersey Fishermen’s Association, Don Thompson. “But the reaction we’re seeing from France is almost like something you would see from Iran or Russia. They’re not just saying they can cut off the electricity supply, French fishermen are saying that they’re coming tomorrow [Thursday] to blockade the harbour in time to stop the ferries from coming in so there’ll be no food supply and no fuel coming into the island either. So it comes pretty close to an act of war, this.”
Jersey’s external relations minister, Ian Gorst, said the island had issued the licenses in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. This means French boats must demonstrate a track record of having fished in the area, he said.
“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licenses to reflect that evidence,” Mr Gorst said in a statement on the Jersey government’s website. “We are entering a new era, and it takes time for all to adjust.”
Jersey is a self-governing British crown dependency located 22km from the French coast, which makes its own laws and raises its own taxes, but relies on the UK government for defence.
At stake are 70 French vessels fishing mainly shellfish including scallops, whelks and lobster. Jersey issued licences to the 41 French boats over 12 metres on Friday but French politicians claimed that without any notice they came with restrictions on the number of fishing days and the fishing equipment allowed. – Bloomberg, Guardian