French trawlers have called off a protest at Jersey harbour without resolution of a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights which has seen the UK accused of breaching its trade deal with the European Union.
Around 60 French boats arrived off St Helier in the early hours of this morning, with flares blazing, in what one local fisherman described as looking like an invasion.
They were greeted by Royal Navy gunships HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, deployed last night by Boris Johnson to “monitor the situation” amid increasingly bellicose language from both sides of the Channel.
And French authorities dispatched two police coastal patrol boats to the English Channel island as a precautionary measure.
The Athos and Themis remained in French territorial waters but were kept on hand to “ensure the security of navigation and safeguard human life”, said the maritime prefecture in the Normandy port of Cherbourg.
The protesters entered the harbour shortly after 6am and delayed for more than four hours the departure of the cargo vessel and ferry Commodore Goodwill, which connects the Channel Islands to the British mainland.
But they left around lunchtime after talks in the harbour with representatives of the Jersey government.
Mr Johnson spoke by phone with members of Jersey’s government including chief minister John Le Fondré to reiterate his “unequivocal support” for the island and assure them that the Navy’s offshore patrol vessels will remain in the area “as a precautionary measure”.
In Paris, Europe minister Clément Beaune told the AFP news agency that France “won’t be intimidated by these manoeuvres”.
The European Commission appealed for “calm”, but warned that conditions which the UK has attempted to impose on licences for French ships operating in Jersey territorial waters breach the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement sealed by Mr Johnson on Christmas Eve.
Commission spokesperson Vivian Loonela said the additional conditions were attached to licences to 41 EU vessels issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Friday to come into effect the following day.
She said they did not meet the TCA’s requirements that limits on fishing activities should be non-discriminatory, based on a clear scientific rationale and notified in advance to those affected.
“Until we have received further justifications from the UK authorities we consider that these new conditions should not apply,” said Ms Loonela.
“Full compliance with the TCA is essential in this process.”
A Commission spokesperson refused to say whether France would be within its rights to retaliate by cutting off electricity supplies to the island, as Paris has threatened.
Disputes about the application of the TCA are subject to a long drawn-out process in which the aggrieved party can take the issue to an arbitration tribunal with representatives of both the UK and EU.
Only if that tribunal’s ruling is ignored can the complainant country retaliate in a “proportionate” way by suspending its obligations towards the other sides, for instance by withdrawing access to fisheries.
The Commission said it was currently in discussions “in good faith” with Defra.
An official from the French presidential administration said the deployment of the French boats to Jersey “speaks to our concern, and frustration, and is an appeal, which we will also express, for the correct application of agreements,” sealed when Britain left the EU.
And Mr Beaune said that Paris want “a quick and full application of the deal” not only in the Channel Islands but also in relation to licences which are awaited in the Hauts de France region around Calais and Boulogne.
A representative of Normandy fishermen confirmed shortly after noon that the trawlers were heading back to port after talks with Jersey officials which he described as not being very positive.
The island’s foreign minister Ian Gorst said the UK was “absolutely not” going to war with France over Jersey’s fish.
But he added: “Let’s be clear, the threats emanating from Paris, and then the threat today of a blockade of our harbour here in St Helier, are totally disproportionate to the technical issues that we’re facing with the implementation of the Brexit trade deal.
“We take those threats very seriously: we’re grateful to the prime minister for his full support, and what we need to do now is find diplomatic solutions to the issues that we’re facing.”
Asked if it was disproportionate to send Royal Navy vessels to patrol the waters around Jersey, Mr Gorst said: “A minister in Paris threatened over technical issues on fishing licences to cut off Jersey’s electricity.
“We have to take such threats seriously and respond appropriately.”
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing described the scene at the port of St Helier on Thursday morning as “like an invasion”.
The 28-year-old said: “There were probably about 60 boats. There were a few hand-held flares and smoke flares going off and apparently a few bangers and stuff going off from the French.
“It was quite a sight. It was impressive, I looked from the shore this morning and it was just like a sea of red lights and flares already going off at sea. It was like an invasion.”
The president of Jersey Fishermen’s Association, Don Thompson, said the “big question on everybody’s lips right now is ‘will our government capitulate to that sort of tactic?’”.
He told ITV’sGood Morning Britain: “The French fishermen out there want conditions removed from their licences so that they can fish with no constraints in our waters, whilst our boats are subject to all sorts of conditions about how much they can catch, where they can go.”
Mr Thompson said such tactics might be used “again and again in the future”, adding: “They’re not very happy fishermen down here this morning, suspecting that we probably will see our government give in to that.”
French fisherman Romain Davodet said he was unable to work normally under new rules which imposed “too many” restrictions on numbers of fishing days or areas available for fishing in Jersey waters.
Defra refused to comment on ongoing talks over the dispute.
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