Fishing was the most sensitive and contentious issue for London and Brussels to close the Brexit trade deal, and it threatens to exacerbate diplomatic tension between the governments of the United Kingdom and France. The unilateral decision of the Government of the island of Jersey, close to the coast of Normandy, but under historical British rule – its foreign and defense policy is decided by Downing Street – to restrict access to its waters has raised spirits. French fishermen protested off the Jersey shore on Thursday and the UK sent military vessels “to control the situation,” according to the British government.
The spirits began to calm down at the end of a busy day. London announced at night the withdrawal of Royal Navy patrols in the area, according to a Downing Street source quoted by the agency France Presse. Shortly before, the Elysee Palace declared that “it is important to be able to quickly fix this specific problem in Jersey”. “The situation is currently calm,” said this Thursday a source from the headquarters of the French presidency who requested anonymity. “And we want it to continue that way. Our desire is for there to be a return to calm and tranquility ”, he added.
The protest had gathered from early morning until late afternoon more than fifty French ships off the port of Saint Helier, in Jersey. The intention, according to the organizers, was not to blockade the British island, but to demonstrate, as French farmers do periodically on the mainland. At one point they blocked the exit of a ship that went to the English port of Portsmouth, but they let it pass. Fishermen’s representatives met with the Jersey authorities, to no avail. In the afternoon, they returned to the ports of their country without the differences having been resolved.
The spectacular nature of the day – the flotilla of fishing boats, the British military ships, which were joined by patrols of the French gendarmerie – made visible a disagreement in which the calculations of internal politics of both capitals and the difficulties of managing the good neighborhood in the Brexit era.
In France, the agricultural sector and, to a lesser extent, the fishing sector, is influential and it is rare for the government to dare to snub it. The president, Emmanuel Macron, also considers that strict respect for the Brexit agreements is essential. The French Government, through its Minister for Maritime Affairs, Annick Girardin, threatened on Tuesday to cut the power supply to the island, which receives almost 95% of its consumption through three large submarine cables from the mainland. .
“I will be inflexible,” Girardin promised before the National Assembly. “We are prepared to resort to retaliatory measures.” The aforementioned source from the Elysee has specified this Thursday: “Retaliation constitutes an extreme measure that we do not wish to reach.”
In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party of the British Boris Johnson faces a wide electoral day this Thursday – local elections, autonomic elections in Scotland and the battle for a new deputy in the English constituency of Hartlepool – which has led the prime minister to do a show of force with the dispatch of military ships.
The British fishing industry, mainly the Scottish one, felt betrayed by the new trade agreement signed with Brussels. What happened in Jersey may further fuel the spirits on a key election day for Johnson to revive his popularity.
“The Prime Minister has reiterated his unequivocal support for Jersey and has confirmed that the two Royal Navy patrols sent to the area will remain there to monitor the situation, as a precautionary measure,” a Downing Street spokesman said Thursday, after Johnson spoke on the phone with Jersey’s Chief Minister John Le Fondré, his Deputy Minister, Lyndon Farnharm, and Foreign Minister Ian Gorst. In the late afternoon, as the French ships withdrew, London claimed that its military ships were preparing to return to the United Kingdom.
When the Jersey authorities began issuing the new post-Brexit fishing licenses last Friday, in order to fish its 12 nautical miles, many fishermen were surprised that their request was rejected. The alleged reason was that they had not been able to prove their historical links to that fishing area. In other words, they had not certified that they had slaughtered for at least 10 days, in a period of twelve months, in the last three years.
Many vessels do not have a GPS log to show such prior presence, so Jersey issued only 41 licenses. At least 17 large workers have been excluded. The island has also imposed other conditions, such as the limitation of nets and the prohibition of fishing for bream in certain areas, while preservation studies of the species are carried out.
Another complaint from French fishermen has to do with the conditions imposed on authorized boats. “They are completely unacceptable,” says Didier Leguelinel, head of the Normandy Regional Fisheries Committee in the port of Granville, by telephone. “Under these conditions, Jersey defines the days at sea to which each ship is entitled. This goes to the point that some boats only have the right to fish in these waters for three days a year. It does not make any sense”.
Leguelinel explains that “today the affected boats fish, in most cases, between 100 and 200 days per year, and the most dependent fish up to 250 days per year in the waters in question.” And he adds: “When the boat that fishes 250 days per year is attributed, it is not known under what criteria, 10 or 20 days, it is sentenced to death.”
Although the new Brexit trade agreement preserved the existing slaughter rights of French fishermen for a period of six years, it eliminated the validity of the historic Granville Bay Agreement, which granted special rights to French fishermen up to three miles off the Jersey shore.
The EU has positioned itself in the conflict on the French side and has described the new rules imposed as “discriminatory”. “Any new condition must be previously notified to the other party, and given enough time to analyze and respond,” said a spokesman for the European Commission. “If the UK authorities do not provide new justifications for their decision, the rules imposed are void,” he added.
The forceful reaction of Paris, threatening to cut electricity to Jersey, and the support of Brussels, lead French fishermen to trust in a solution. According to Leguelinel, “the ball is in the field of diplomacy.” “There will be new actions, if there is not a quick vision of the exit from the crisis with the good will of each other. We do not know what type of action, or how, but there will probably be others ”, he concludes.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.