Vessels from the Royal Navy and French police boats patrolled on Thursday near Jersey’s port of Saint Helier, where French fishermen angry about losing access to waters off their coast gathered for a protest.
Around 70 fishing boats amassed off-shore early in the day, with some firing flares amid talk over maritime radio of a blockade of Saint Helier.
Two Royal Navy ships, HMS Tamar, which is equipped with machineguns and a helicopter landing pad, and HMS Severn, were tracking the demonstration from a distance. The stand-off escalated mid-morning after it emerged that the French maritime gendarmerie vessel Athos, armed with a cannon, would be arriving in the area “imminently” on a “patrol mission”.
In a sign that French President Emmanuel Macron had decided on a tit-for-tat response to Boris Johnson’s deployment of the Royal Navy, a second French ship was also dispatched.
France’s European affairs minister Clement Beaune also told AFP his government would “not be intimidated” by the UK’s show of force.
Commission spokeswoman Vivian Loonela told a Brussels briefing: "On April 30, the commission was notified by the UK authorities of granting 41 licences to the EU vessels who are fishing in Jersey territorial waters from May 1.
"But there were additional conditions set to these licences.
"We have, following the receiving of this, indicated to the UK that we see that the provisions of the EU/UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, that we recently agreed, have not been met there, have not been respected."
The protest leaders denied they were seeking to impose a blockade and the flotilla eventually headed back to France. The UK government later said they welcomed the move and announced that the two Royal Navy ships would be returning to port.
Early on Thursday, some of the French fishing boats entered the harbour for about an hour, with footage posted online apparently showing a French boat ramming the rear of a Jersey vessel. The French vessels later withdrew to mass near Elizabeth Castle.
As tensions grew, Lord West, a former head of the Navy, warned that Royal Marine boarding squads could seize French fishing vessels if they blocked the port. He also unleashed a barrage of criticism after French maritime minister Annick Girardin warned of possible “retaliatory measures” in the post-Brexit fishing rights row, which could include cutting off electricity supplies to the island.
“It’s quite extraordinary to make threats of blockading, of cutting off power supplies, that really is rather sort of a 19th century way of behaving rather than a 21st century way of behaving,” he told Times Radio.
The Jersey situation is the latest post-Brexit clash, with small-scale unrest in Northern Ireland, fresh demands in Scotland for a second independence referendum and a series of bust-ups with Brussels over trade arrangements.
Mr Johnson spoke to Jersey chief minister John Le Fondre and external affairs minister Ian Gorst on Wednesday and “underlined his unwavering support” for the island. Downing Street said the two Royal Navy ships were sent as a “precautionary measure”.
Gendarmerie officials confirmed that the Athos was on its way to the Channel Island. The Athos is carrying out a “patrol mission in the area,” said a Maritime Gendarmerie spokesman.
Athos — A712 —was transferred to the National Gendarmerie in 2016 after some two decades of service with the French Navy. She is equipped with a 20mm cannon and, despite being made entirely of beech wood, is said to be able to withstand torpedo fire.
French fishermen claim new licence limitations could force two-thirds of them out of business and they were venting their anger with high-octane rhetoric. “I’ve refuelled the boat — we’re ready to restage the Battle of Trafalgar,” said Jean-Claude La Vaullée, skipper of Le Cach.
David Sellam, the head of the Normandy-Brittany sea authority, said he believed Jersey had been taken over by an “extremist fringe who want to reduce French fishing access and profit from Brexit”. “We’re ready for war. We can bring Jersey to its knees if necessary,” he claimed.
Don Thompson, president of the Jersey Fishermen’s Association, said if there was a blockade of the island it would run out of food in two days.
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing described the scene at St Helier this morning as “like an invasion”, with the French fleet mostly made up of “big French dredgers and trawlers” of 12 metres or more.
The Commodore Goodwill freight ship, in the harbour, was initially unable to leave early this morning, according to the Jersey Evening Post.
The French protest leaders were later said to have allowed the vessel to depart. Mr Gorst backed the decision to deploy the Royal Navy, telling BBC News: “It’s important that we respond to threats, but the answer to this solution is to continue to talk and diplomacy.”
In an attempt to defuse the row, representatives of the Jersey government met the fishermen on Thursday afternoon, with their boat pulling alongside one of the French vessels so they could talk ship-to-ship while observing Covid restrictions.
Mr Gorst said the discussions were "positive" but some of the fishermen were reported to be unhappy, complaining there had been little progress.
Jersey's chief minister John Le Fondre said: "The French fishermen protested peacefully and respectfully, and were able to set out their concerns directly to government representatives.
"We recognise that there have been challenges in the implementation of the new trade agreement.
"Speaking directly to the fishermen has enabled both parties to better understand how those challenges will be addressed, and we are proposing the establishment of a forum which will enable the Government of Jersey to continue to engage with all fishermen in the region openly and constructively."
The French fishermen had been able to leave Jersey "knowing that they had been listened to, and that a step has been taken towards resolving the issues that have arisen during the move to the new trade agreement".
Mathieu Vimard, deputy director of the Organisation of Normandy Fishermen, condemned post-Brexit fishing licences, with restrictions, which the French boats are now having to apply for.
The French government later said it was acting "in a spirit of responsibility" in response to a "British failure" to abide by the terms of the Brexit trade deal.
Paris will use "all the leverage at our disposal" to protect the fishing industry, a spokesman said on Thursday evening.
A spokesman for the French ministry for Europe and foreign affairs said: "Amid the tensions that followed the British failure to abide by the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement in regard to licences for our fishermen in British waters, we are acting in a spirit of responsibility.
"We hope the situation will be swiftly resolved by the full and total implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which provides for continued access to British waters for fishermen with a history of working in those waters prior to Brexit.
"It is our only goal, and we want to use all the leverage at our disposal to protect the fishing industry and enable it to continue its activities."
A Downing Street spokesman said: "We are pleased that French fishing boats have now left the vicinity of Jersey.
"Given the situation is resolved for now, the Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels will prepare to return to port in the UK.
"We remain on standby to provide any further assistance Jersey requests."
The UK insisted that the Jersey authorities have a right to regulate fisheries in their waters under the Brexit trade agreement.
"We will work with Jersey to support the discussions under way with the European Commission," the spokesman said.
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Jersey receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through three undersea cables.