The immediate threat to which the prime minister was apparently responding when he dispatched the patrol vessels on Wednesday evening was a mooted blockade by French fishing boats of the port of St Helier, Jersey’s main entry point for supplies. French fishers accuse the Jersey authorities of limiting access to the waters around the Channel island – and being in breach of the post-Brexit arrangements agreed between the EU and the UK in its Christmas Eve trade and cooperation agreement. A flotilla of boats full of angry fishers did indeed gather at the port on Thursday morning under the watchful gaze of two Royal Navy River class patrol vessels. The bigger picture, however, is the rancour and tension between Britain and EU member states after a bruising few years since the June 2016 referendum result.
When the UK left the EU’s single market and customs union on 31 January 2020 – the so-called transition period following the end of the country’s membership of the bloc – it left the common fisheries policy that has peacefully divvied up the spoils of Europe’s waters since the 1970s.
It also ended the Bay of Granville agreement, signed in 2000 by Britain and the Channel Islands government, which had established a pattern of rights for French boats up to three miles from the islands’ coasts.
Within the Brexit trade and cooperation agreement struck last Christmas Eve there is a new EU-UK fisheries agreement that offers French fishers the continuation of the status quo in a zone between six and 12 miles from the UK’s shores up to 2026, if they can prove that they had previously been operating in those waters.
Jersey published on Friday a list of licences issued for 41 French boats of more than 12 metres that could prove they had met the requirement they had fished in the island’s waters for at least 10 days over a period of 12 months within the past three years. The licences also show what species of fish they were fishing and the numbers of days spent at sea.
An extended amnesty on providing such proof has been offered to smaller vessels. But there are 17 larger boats that have been unable to provide the evidence required and those who were granted access complain that additional conditions were set on securing the licences.
Those extra conditions were that dredgers could only have 12 lines coming off them and that the vessels respected the closure of the bream nesting areas for a small period of time to allow scientific research to be undertaken. The French government said those conditions were “null and void” claiming they were “were not arranged or discussed” with them. The European Commission has also said that the conditions are in breach of the trade and cooperation agreement.
The trade and cooperation agreement foresees that both the fisheries agreement maintaining the status quo in the Channel and the UK’s retention of access to the EU single market in energy ends in 2026. On Tuesday, the French minister for maritime affairs, Annick Girardin, made the link between Jersey continuing to benefit from three sub-cables from France supplying the island with energy and the smooth running of the fishing deal. “The agreement contains retaliatory measures,” she had told the French national assembly. “Well, we are ready to use these retaliatory measures; Europe, France has the means, it is written into the agreement. So as far as Jersey is concerned, I would remind you, for example of the transport of electricity by sub-marine cables. So we have the means, and, sorry it has come to this, we will do so if we have to.”
Whenever armed forces get involved in disputes of this sort there is a risk, however small, of mistakes and escalation. A dispute between the UK and Iceland over fishing waters nown as the ‘cod wars’ led to violence on the high seas at various points from the 1950s to the 1970s, with ramming and net cutting abounding. In the early 1970s, the Icelandic prime minister at the time Ólafur Jóhannesson even reportedly asked the US to send jets to bomb the British frigates. But the dispute seems eminently fixable. The Jersey authorities are looking for a compromise.