France has deployed two patrol boats to Jersey as tensions continue to rise in a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights in the English Channel.
Boris Johnson last night ordered two Royal Navy vessels to the scene, where a flotilla of French trawlers appeared to be making an attempt to blockade St Helier harbour in a row over new conditions for licences to fish in Jersey waters.
And the prime minister today spoke by phone with members of Jersey’s government including chief minister John Le Fondré to reiterate his “unequivocal support” for the island.
Mr Johnson confirmed that the HMS Severn and HMS Tamar will remain in place to “monitor the situation as a precautionary measure,” said Downing Street.
The European Commission today appealed for “calm”, but warned that the new licence conditions – announced last Friday to come into effect the following day – breach the terms of the Brexit trade deal agreed by Mr Johnson on Christmas Eve.
French Europe minister Clément Beaune told the AFP news agency that Paris “won’t be intimidated by these manoeuvres”.
A spokesperson for the French maritime prefecture in Cherbourg said that the police boats Athos and Themis were being sent to the scene to “ensure the security of navigation and safeguard human life”.
The two vessels will remain in French waters but are ready to intervene swiftly if the situation degenerates and people end up in the water, said the spokesperson.
At least one of the French trawlers entered the harbour early today and positioned itself in front of the Commodore Goodwill, delaying the departure of the cargo vessel and ferry, which connects the Channel islands to the British mainland.
A European Commission spokesperson said that Brussels was in discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) over new conditions on fishing licenses for 41 French trawlers to operate in Jersey territorial waters from 1 May.
Vivian Loonela said the licences did not meet the terms of the EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which require any limits on access to have a clear scientific basis, to be non-discriminatory and to be notified in advance.
But a Commission spokesperson refused to say whether France would be within its rights to retaliate by cutting off electricity supplies to the island, as Paris has threatened.
An official from the French presidential administration said the deployment of the French boats “speaks to our concern, and frustration, and is an appeal, which we will also express, for the correct application of agreements,” sealed when Britain left the EU.
The official said the deployment of patrol vessels from both France and Britain was aimed at maintaining order and preventing clashes between trawlers on opposing sides of the row.
Mr Beaune told AFP: “Our wish is not to have tensions, but to have a quick and full application of the deal.
“That’s the case for Jersey and that’s the case for the licences we are waiting for in the Hauts de France,” he said, referring to the stretch of coast around Calais and Boulogne.
Jersey government officials, who insist the new fishing restrictions are in line with post-Brexit trade arrangements, met representatives of the protesters on Thursday to listen to their concerns.
The island’s foreign minister Ian Gorst said the UK was “absolutely not” going to war with France over Jersey’s fish.
But he added: “Let’s be clear, the threats emanating from Paris, and then the threat today of a blockade of our harbour here in St Helier, are totally disproportionate to the technical issues that we’re facing with the implementation of the Brexit trade deal.
“We take those threats very seriously: we’re grateful to the prime minister for his full support, and what we need to do now is find diplomatic solutions to the issues that we’re facing.”
Speaking on TalkRadio, Mr Gorst said that “in extremis” Jersey could generate its own power if France cut off electricity from French state supplier EDF.
He said that Royal Navy gunboats had been “sent down as a precautionary measure to monitor Jersey waters”.
“We welcome that support from the British government, but let’s be clear, we are also content with a peaceful demonstration and protests by French fishermen, and so far that is exactly what’s happened,” he explained.
Noting that shipping to Jersey had only been “slightly delayed” by the action, Mr Gorst added: “We do not expect anything other than a peaceful protest.”
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing described the scene at the port of St Helier on Thursday morning as “like an invasion”.
The 28-year-old said: “There were probably about 60 boats. There were a few hand-held flares and smoke flares going off and apparently a few bangers and stuff going off from the French.
“It was quite a sight. It was impressive, I looked from the shore this morning and it was just like a sea of red lights and flares already going off at sea. It was like an invasion.”
The president of Jersey Fishermen’s Association, Don Thompson, said the “big question on everybody’s lips right now is ‘will our government capitulate to that sort of tactic?’”.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “The French fishermen out there want conditions removed from their licences so that they can fish with no constraints in our waters, whilst our boats are subject to all sorts of conditions about how much they can catch, where they can go.”
He said it would be “grossly unfair” if the government does “capitulate to that” and said such tactics might be used “again and again in the future”.
He added: “They’re not very happy fishermen down here this morning, suspecting that we probably will see our government give in to that.”