The European Union accused the UK of breaching the terms of the post-Brexit trade deal on Thursday as tensions over fishing rights in the Channel Islands were de-escalated after a dramatic 24 hours, with Royal Navy boats ordered to retreat from Jersey shores.
Brussels’ claim that London had flouted the rules came on a day in which 60 vessels blockaded Jersey’s harbour, a French boat rammed a British fishing vessel and Boris Johnson declared his unequivocal support for the Channel island in the battle with its nearest neighbours.
France, which had on Tuesday escalated tensions by warning the alleged breach could result in Jersey’s supply of electricity being cut, moved to calm the choppy diplomatic waters on Thursday.
In a statement, the French foreign ministry said it wanted to “rapidly defuse” the situation before it got out of control.
“We won’t be intimidated by these manoeuvres [of navy boats],” said France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune. “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 [region]. We’re working non-stop with the European Commission and British authorities,” he said.
A UK government spokesperson said the navy vessels would prepare to return to port but would “remain on standby to provide further assistance” to Jersey if required. “We are pleased that French fishing boats have now left the vicinity of Jersey,” the spokesperson said.
But the government remained full-square behind Jersey’s right to impose its own conditions on the narrow stretch of waters between the island and France, 13 miles away.
It indicated it would work with Brussels to resolve the dispute, which appeared to have erupted over a lack of communication with Brussels and French fishers by the Jersey authorities.
“Jersey authorities have a right to regulate fisheries in their waters under this agreement and we support them in exercising those rights. We will work with Jersey to support the discussions under way with the European Commission,” said the spokesperson.
The rapprochement on both sides of the Channel ended 12 hours of drama on the seas, starting at 4.30am when a flotilla of French boats started to amass off the coast of Jersey.
In a peaceful protest, marred only by the one ramming incident, they entered the harbour at St Helier in a sea of red flare smoke at 7am, briefly trapping a cargo boat, before retreating to a distant position enabling freight vessels to continue their business.
Boat-to-boat crisis talks at noon between the French fishers and a delegation from Jersey’s government ended the six-hour standoff but did not deliver the breakthrough needed.
“It’s rubbish, I’m sorry,” said Cyril Piraud, one fisher who was part of the delegation onboard the Normandy Trader, a large vessel loaned by a Jersey fisher for the talks.
“I’m not sure why we even went to see them. They are putting all the blame on the French government, who they say did not provide them with the right information. If we do nothing, we’re going to end up being squeezed out, little by little. This can only be sorted out on dry land now. The [French] minister has to carry out her threats.”
Earlier, Johnson reiterated his “unequivocal support” for the Jersey government in a phone call to the chief minister of the island, John Le Fondré, his deputy and Ian Gorst, the external affairs minister.
At that point the tensions had flared in an apparent tit-for-tat development, in which France also sent two of its gendarmerie patrol boats, PCG Athos and PCG Themis, to the area to “monitor the situation and guarantee the safety of people at sea”.
But fishers were sanguine, believing the show of strength on both sides had served its purpose in drawing attention to poor Brexit dividends.
The head of the local fishers’ association, Don Thomson, said he was “confident” the Jersey government would not capitulate but pointed out Jersey fishers had also lost out in the Brexit deal with scallop fishers having to “leave the industry” because of the EU ban on live shellfish that flowed from Johnson’s sovereignty-first hard Brexit.
“The show of force is over, now it’s politics that has to pick up the baton,” said Dimitri Rogoff, the president of the fishing association in the French region of Normandy.
The dispute centres on post-Brexit fishing licences issued by the Jersey government on Friday, which brought new conditions limiting the number of days and gear permitted for fishing.
Brussels said this amounted to a breach of the Brexit trade and cooperation (TCA) deal, which required advance warning of new conditions on fishing.
“Under the EU-UK TCA, any proposed management conditions have to be notified in advance to the other party, giving them sufficient time to assess and react to the proposed measures,” it said.
“The commission has clearly indicated to the UK that the provisions of the EU-UKTCA have not been respected. Until the UK authorities provide further justifications on the new conditions, these new conditions should not apply.
• This article was amended on 6 May 2021. HMS Severn and Tamar are classed as patrol vessels, not gunboats as previously stated.