Britain and France have both sent naval vessels to the Channel island of Jersey amid an escalating row over fishing rights.
The UK’s decision to send naval vessels was the result of a discussion between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and local officials about a blockade by dozens of French fishermen of Jersey capital Saint Helier, a Downing Street statement read on Wednesday.
It comes after French maritime minister Annick Girardin threatened to cut electricity to the self-governing island of Jersey – which is off the coast of France and receives 95% of its electricity from there – as a “retaliatory measure” for restricting fishing boat access.
France also dispatched two naval patrol vessels to Jersey, a French maritime police headquarters spokesperson said on Thursday.
French local authorities shut down their representation in the island’s capital Saint Helier on Monday.
The French boats were dispatched as a “precautionary measure” to “ensure security at sea and the safety of human lives,” the spokesperson added.
“You can imagine, with about 50 fishermen at sea, we wanted to ensure security and to be ready to intervene if, for example, there was a man overboard.” Patrol vessels Athos and Themis are headed to the area of the Saint Helier port where French fishermen have gathered to protest post-Brexit rules on fishing rights.
Representatives from the government of Jersey and from the French fishing industry met on Thursday to discuss the dispute. “We are meeting with French fishing leaders this morning to listen to their concerns regarding fishing rights,” the Minister for External Relations, Senator Ian Gorst said in a statement.
“There are continuing extensive political and operational efforts with both our local fishing community and French fishing associations, their regional representatives in France, and both the UK and French governments, in order to resolve the current dispute and resume previous good relations.”
Jersey is one of the Channel Islands, sitting just 14 miles off the French coast. While not technically part of the United Kingdom, the islands are crown dependencies, defended and internationally represented by the UK government.
France has accused the Jersey government – which issued 41 fishing permits to French vessels on April 30 – of placing “unilateral” restrictions on the trawlers.
“Regarding Jersey, I’ll remind you, for example, of electricity transportation via undersea cable,” Girardin said Tuesday. “We have means at our disposal. And even if it’d be sad to get to that point, we’ll get there if we must.”
Jersey Electricity, the main electricity provider to the island, says more than 95% of the electricity the island purchases is from France and is transported via submarine cables.
In a statement, Jersey’s Minister for External Relations, Sen. Ian Gorst, said the island had been informed by France and the European Union “that they are unhappy with the conditions placed on fishing licenses and fishing in general.”
“Such complaints are taken very seriously, and the Government will respond in full,” Gorst said. “However, the Government of Jersey has acted on legal advice, in good faith, and with due regard to non-discriminatory and scientific principles at every stage of these proceedings.”
He added Jersey regretted a recent decision by French local authorities in neighboring Normandy to shut down their representation on the island, saying it was based on a “misunderstanding that can be put right.”
“We want to heal the relationship as soon as possible, and we hope the (Normandy authorities) will take the opportunity to reverse the decision,” Gorst said.
The UK and EU reached a post-Brexit trade agreement on December 24, which came into force on January 1 when Britain left the EU’s single market and customs union.
The Jersey spat is part of an escalating dispute between the EU and the UK over fishing rights, with boats from both sides facing administrative hurdles and being turned away over paperwork.
“It is important that we right away condemn this move, I did so with the (European) Commission, condemning the breach of the Brexit agreement,” Girardin said, warning the Jersey move “would set a dangerous precedent for access elsewhere.”
Girardin’s threat is reminiscent of former French President Charles de Gaulle’s blockade against the Principality of Monaco in October 1962 as part of a dispute over taxation.
According to archives from the French Assembly, the move had a “psychological impact” on the local population that feared water, gas and electricity provided by France would be cut. The blockade only lasted a few hours.
Duarte Mendonça and Barbara Wojazer in Paris contributed to this report.