Gunboats sent in to Jersey fishing row: what happens next?

Blockade of St Helier port ‘pretty close to an act of war’, says Jersey Fishermen’s Association

St Helier
French fishing boats near the port of St Helier
(Image credit: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images)

Tensions over the fishing waters around Jersey escalated quickly today with the UK and France sending military vessels to the capital St Helier.

Around 60 French boats had been blocking the Channel Islands port after having their fishing rights restricted in the wake of Brexit.

The fishermen have now left Jersey after ten hours at sea, but Boris Johnson said the two Royal Navy vessels in the area would “remain in place to monitor the situation as a precautionary measure”.

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Why are French fishermen angry?

“At the centre of the dispute is post-Brexit arrangements for the shared waters in the 13-mile stretch between France and Jersey,” explains The Guardian. A 200-year-old treaty on shared fishing rights came to an end on Friday, the final day of a four-month post-Brexit grace period.

For new licences to fish in the waters, French fishermen must show they have been working in the area from 2012 to 2016 using GPS data, “which some don’t have”, says Politico. They claim the conditions set out by Jersey do not fit with the Brexit trade agreement that determined access terms.

Why did tensions ramp up?

On Tuesday in the French parliament, the country’s sea minister Annick Girardin “gently reminded the UK that just as France depends on the UK for fish, Jersey needs French electricity to fry it”, says Politico.

Should Paris carry out its threat to shut down three undersea cables that provide 95% of Jersey’s power, “there appears to be little the UK Government could do”, reported The Telegraph yesterday. One government insider told the newspaper: “At least when the Germans invaded they kept the lights on”, referring to the five years of occupation during the Second World War.

This was followed by threats by fishermen to blockade the island’s main port, a move described by the head of the Jersey Fishermen’s Association, Don Thompson, as “something you would see from Iran or Russia”. He told The Guardian the prevention of food and fuel supplies via ferry “comes pretty close to an act of war”.

How did the UK respond?

After hearing of the blockade threats yesterday, the UK sent two Royal Navy ships, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, to the Channel Islands as a “precautionary measure” to patrol the waters and monitor the situation. France later matched the UK’s show of strength by dispatching two maritime patrol boats of its own to the waters.

The Jersey Evening Post says up to 60 fishing boats entered the St Helier harbour this morning, trapping a freight ship, with one Jersey fisherman likening it to “an invasion”. They later massed near Elizabeth Castle, in St Aubin’s Bay, but out of the harbour, before heading back to land.

What happens next?

The European Union has demanded that the UK forces Jersey to withdraw its new fishing conditions, escalating “what was a local quarrel into a full-blown international dispute between the EU and UK”, says The Times.

The demand puts “pressure on the government in Westminster to directly override Jersey because the crown dependency’s foreign policy is set in London”, explains the newspaper.

Jersey authorities sat down to talk with the fishermen late this morning, which former British ambassador to France Peter Ricketts welcomed. He told BBC Radio 4: “My guess is that this will get resolved if everyone keeps calm and carries on negotiating.”

But, according to The Telegraph, the talks came to “very little” and one French crewman told the newspaper: “We will go back, and next time it will be war.”

The Times says the “political stakes are high” for Johnson, with the blockade falling on the day of a bumper crop of elections. “By standing up to France and the EU, he hopes to show voters from Scotland and Hartlepool that the government is defending Britain’s fishing industry by using the UK’s clout on the international stage,” says the newspaper.

The PM urged France and Jersey to find a solution, although Oliver Duff, The i newspaper’s editor-in-chief, notes that “sending in the Navy may not seem an obvious way to de-escalate the situation”.

Duff says: “Future clashes in the Channel are inevitable, a consequence of the vote to leave the EU; the British Government’s determination to exercise greater control over fishing in UK and Crown dependency waters; and the French reluctance to accept reduced quotas.”

But he adds: “May cool heads prevail.”

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