Boris Johnson has dispatched two Royal Navy patrol boats to protect Jersey from a feared blockade by French fishing vessels, in an escalation of a dispute over post-Brexit access to waters around the Channel island.
The move followed talks on Wednesday evening between the prime minister and the chief minister of the British crown dependency, John Le Fondré, who had warned Downing Street of imminent movements by French fishing boats to cut off the island’s main port.
Jersey’s government had already been reeling from comments on Tuesday from France’s minister for maritime affairs, Annick Girardin, who had warned that the island’s electricity supply could be turned off in retaliation over a lack of access for the French fishing fleet to its waters.
The two Royal Navy river-class patrol boats, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, are being deployed on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. Both vessels are armed with cannon designed to protect against fast moving attack crafts and two on-deck machine guns.
HMS Tamar, which at 90.5m (295ft) is the larger of the two vessels, has an additional two miniguns. Last month it became the first Royal Navy warship to be painted in dazzle camouflage since the second world war, designed to make it more difficult for the enemy it judge its speed and heading.
The mobilisation echoes the cod wars of the 1970s, when there were violent clashes on the high seas between British vessels and Icelandic fishers.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “This evening the prime minister spoke to the chief minister of Jersey and the minister of external affairs, Ian Gorst, about the prospect of a blockade of Saint Helier.
“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.”
The spokesperson said Johnson had “underlined his unwavering support for Jersey” in the crisis, describing any threat to blockade Jersey’s main entry point for vital supples as “unjustified”.
“As a precautionary measure the UK will be sending two offshore patrol vessels to monitor the situation … They agreed the UK and Jersey governments would continue to work closely on this issue.”
It is understood the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and the trade policy minister, Greg Hands, also spoke to their French counterparts on Wednesday to protest against what officials had described as provocations.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “HMS Severn and HMS Tamar are deploying to Jersey to conduct maritime security patrols. This is a strictly precautionary measure and has been agreed with the Jersey government.”
The head of fisheries for the Normandy region, Dimitri Rogoff had said earlier on Wednesday that 100 French fishing vessels would sail to Jersey’s port on Thursday as part of a protest against the new rules although he claimed they would then return peacefully to port.
A No 10 spokesperson had described the threats to Jersey’s energy supply, 95% of which comes from sub-marine cables from France, as “unacceptable and disproportionate”.
The row has been triggered by changes wrought by Brexit to the fishing rights of UK and EU fleets. On Tuesday, Girardin had said she was “revolted” by the lack of access given to French boats that had operated for decades in Jersey’s waters. She had claimed Paris was ready to retaliate, warning that the Channel island relied on “the transmission of electricity by underwater cables” from France.
Speaking to the Guardian on Wednesday, Gorst said the threat to the island’s energy supply had been grave but that a more imminent danger was a blockade. “That is very possible,” he said. “They have done so with our sister Channel island [Guernsey] in the past, in the 90s, so we are preparing for our eventuality.
“It may even be as soon as [Thursday],” he added. “We have got contingency emergency committees that are preparing for that eventuality..
“Frustrations are running very high.”
The UK government had responded forcefully to the threats made by the French government, claiming they fitted a pattern of behaviour by the EU and its member states since the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January.
“To threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate,” a spokesperson said. “We are working closely with the EU and Jersey on fisheries access provisions following the end of the transition period so trust the French will use the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems.”
A UK government source noted that the threat to Jersey’s energy supply followed the invocation of article 16 in January to establish a vaccine border on the island of Ireland, warnings of a block on exports to the UK and the recent suggestion from France’s EU affairs minister that the City of London would suffer if the British government reneged on its commitments on fishing.
“Comments such as these are surprising and disappointing, especially from a close neighbour,” the UK official said. “This is just the latest example of the EU issuing threats as a first resort at any sign of difficulty. They should be using the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems; that is exactly what it is there for.”
Gorst said that cutting Jersey’s energy supply would force the island to refire an oil power station, scuppering its green targets. But he added that he believed France would only be able to act on the threat in 2026, at the end of a current agreement between the EU and the UK on energy supply contained within the free trade deal struck on Christmas Eve.
“It is not the first time [cutting energy] has been mooted to us but the energy deal is a commercial contract between EDF and Jersey Electricity Company. We have got three undersea cables but we are able in extremis to produce our electricity through a power station here in Jersey, but it is just not as green or as cheap,” he said.
Gorst said he had held talks on Wednesday with George Eustice, the environment secretary, over a plan to defuse the situation.
The cause of the tension has been the demand from Jersey for evidence from French fishing vessels that they have historically fished in its waters, a condition contained within the EU-UK trade deal for the continuation of their activity.
Jersey published on Friday a list of licences issued for 41 French boats over 12 metres that had met the requirement that they had fished in Jersey waters for at least 10 days over a period of 12 months in the past three years.
But 17 boats have not been given licences and the French government has claimed that unfair conditions had also been set on those who been offered access.
Gorst said: “We are putting together a plan which we hope will provide extra time for the French boats that it has now become apparent didn’t provide sufficient evidence to prove their historical fishing in our waters … It would allow them to continue to operate while they provide that evidence.”
Jersey Electricity moved on Wednesday to reassure customers that it had backup in the “unlikely event” that France cut supplies. In a tweet, it said that “in the unlikely event electricity supplies from France are disrupted, La Collette Power Statione and Queens’ Road has capacity to supply Jersey’s electricity requirements”.
• This article was amended on 6 May 2021. HMS Severn and Tamar are classed as patrol vessels, not gunboats as previously stated in the subheading.