SAINT HELIER: Britain and France sent navy and coastal patrol ships to waters near the Channel island of Jersey on Thursday as tensions spiralled between the two neighbours over post-Brexit fishing rights.
The posturing by the historic rivals was sparked by a protest by 50-70 French fishing boats, which gathered outside Jersey’s main port on Thursday morning, raising fears of a blockade.
That prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to send two royal navy gunboats to the area, with France following suit with two of its own coast patrol vessels.
“We won’t be intimidated by these manoeuvres,” French Europe Minister Clement Beaune said.
The latest flare-up has been caused by a dispute over fishing rights and licensing following Britain’s departure from the European Union.
At dawn, French trawlers could be seen massed in front of the Saint Helier port on Jersey, a self-governing territory that is dependent on Britain for defence.
Jersey lies just off France’s northern coast and its rich fishing waters were previously open to French boats.
“It’s incredible to have succeeded in getting everyone together,” fisherman Camille Lecureuil said onboard his boat from the port of Carteret on the French coast.
Ludovic Lazaro, a French fisherman from Granville, said that “we’re not really blocking. We’re all outside the port.” But the departure of a cargo ship in Saint Helier was being held up, he said.
“The port captain in Jersey doesn’t want to let the cargo ship out if everyone is around here. He wants everyone to leave,” he said.
The British navy vessels HMS Severn and HMS Tamar arrived in Jersey’s waters to “monitor the situation,” the UK government said on Thursday, while a French military source said “the situation is very calm overall”.
Johnson spoke to Jersey Chief Minister John Le Fondre on Wednesday, when the pair “stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions,” according to a statement.
In the run up to Thursday’s protest, French fishermen had been loudly complaining about new licensing requirements announced by Jersey authorities.
They view the paperwork as deliberately obstructing them — the same charge made by other French boat owners who have denounced delays in the licensing process for access to UK waters elsewhere.
At the end of last month, more than a hundred French fishermen briefly blocked trucks carrying British fish to processing plants in the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer.
French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin escalated tensions on Tuesday by warning that France could cut electricity supplies to Jersey in retaliation, a threat condemned by the British government as “unacceptable.” But Beaune accused Britain of being to blame for failing to implement a Brexit deal that came into force on January 1 which should have guaranteed French fishermen the right to continue working in British waters.
“Our wish is not to have tensions, but to have a quick and full application of the deal,” he said. “That’s the case for Jersey and that’s the case for the licences we are waiting for in the Hauts de France” region.
One of the French patrol boats deployed to the area belongs to the gendarme military police force, the other is a coastal security vessel operated by the maritime ministry.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2021