In a marked escalation of tensions, Boris Johnson has ordered two Royal Navy vessels to patrol the waters around the island amid fears of a possible blockade. On Thursday morning, it emerged that the French had sent their own duo of police patrol boats to join them.
The country’s maritime minister Annick Girardin warned two days earlier that France was ready to take “retaliatory measures”, accusing Jersey of dragging its feet over issuing new licences to French boats.
As the governments of both countries continue to point the finger of blame at each other, social media users have anticipated a ramping up of tensions – “war with France” was trending on Wednesday evening and Thursday.
A member of the Jersey Militia reenactment group was seen firing on the French boats with a musket from Elizabeth C… https://t.co/8CXPbz29pQ
— ITV News Channel TV (@ITV News Channel TV)
The row erupted after the Jersey government said French fishing boats would need to obtain a licence to fish in the island’s waters under the terms of the post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and the EU, which came into force last week.
It sparked fury within French fishing communities who complained that boats which had operated there for years were suddenly having their access to the fisheries restricted.
Earlier this week, the French maritime minister said Paris would cut off electricity to Jersey – which gets 95 per cent of its power supply from France – if the dispute was not resolved.
On Wednesday, the PM spoke to External Affairs Minister Ian Gorst and Jersey Chief Minister Senator John Le Fondre to “underline his unwavering support” for the island.
He then ordered HMS Severn and HMS Tamar to be deployed to “monitor the situation” amid the protest by French fishing vessels in St Helier.
The view in St Helier Harbour this morning as at least 60 French and Jersey boats are blocking the entrance in prot… https://t.co/5OqyupGEs1
A Ministry of Defence spokesman 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.”
A Downing Street spokesman added: “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 Prime Minister underlined his unwavering support for Jersey.
“He said that any blockade would be completely 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.”
French fishing vessels stage a protest outside the harbour at St Helier
Dozens of French boats arrived at the harbour on Thursday morning, with some crews setting off flares during the so far peaceful protest, according to the Jersey Evening Post.
The newspaper later said the leader of the protest had asked the French boats to leave the harbour to let a freight ferry, the Commodore Goodwill, depart.
Dimitri Rogoff, who heads a group of Normandy fishermen, insisted they were not seeking to blockade the port.
“This isn’t an act of war. It’s an act of protest,” he told the Associated Press news agency.
Nevertheless, there was concern on the island that the French action could escalate if the dispute was not resolved.
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing witnessed dozens of French fishing vessels approaching St Helier
Fisherman Josh Dearing described the appearance of the French boats, some letting off flares, as “like an invasion” and he welcomed the presence of the Royal Navy ships.
“We’re completely unprotected in Jersey. We’ve got nothing except for a few police officers. We don’t have a police boat, we don’t have a navy boat, we don’t have anything to protect us,” he said.
“The French can be hostile. All of our livelihoods are in that harbour and if they wanted to they could cause damage.
“The French being the French, they don’t mess around. They can blockade their own harbours – they wouldn’t think twice about coming and doing it to us.”
French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters off their coast have gathered their boats in protest
Meanwhile, the French maritime authority for the Channel and the North Sea said its Athos and Themis patrol boats were being sent to the island “to ensure the protection of human life at sea”.
A spokeswoman said they were being stationed to be in a position to intervene “as quickly as possible” if the situation worsens.
Don Thompson, president of the Jersey Fishermen’s Association, said his members have warned they are prepared to ditch their fishing licences if the French win their demands.
He told Good Morning Britain: “We’ve already told our minister – our licences, some of our fishermen have paid a quarter of a million pounds for our licences – we’re going to get rid of our licences and fish without licences.
“We just will not put up with those (French) boats being left to fish uncontrolled, unsustainably in our waters, whilst we’re subject to all sorts of constraints.”
"That would be absolutely unacceptable.'
Head of the Jersey Fishing Association says it would be 'unacceptable' fo… https://t.co/P0l3lm5YAS
— Good Morning Britain (@Good Morning Britain)
Speaking to BBC Newsnight on Wednesday, Gorst said: “We take these threats from both Paris and the French fishermen very seriously.
“They are disproportionate to the issues that are being experienced in the post-Brexit trade licensing issuing.”
However, he stressed that the island is not seeking to bar boats which have historically fished in Jersey waters and insisted the dispute can be resolved amicably.
He said that of the 41 boats which sought licences under the new rules last Friday, all but 17 had provided the evidence required.
“The trade deal is clear but I think there has been some confusion about how it needs to be implemented, because we absolutely respect the historic rights of French fishermen to fish in Jersey waters as they have been doing for centuries,” he said.
“I do think a solution can be found.
“I am optimistic that we can provide extra time to allow this evidence to be provided.”