France appeared to be sending a naval vessel towards the Channel island’s port of St Helier as a row over post-Brexit fishing rights between the UK and France escalated on Thursday.
A flotilla of French boats headed towards Jersey at about 5am, with fishermen lighting flares and waving banners calling for fishing access to the waters. Two local boats were said to have joined the demonstration as police and islanders looked on.
The Royal Navy’s HMS Severn and HMS Tamar have been deployed by the UK Government to “monitor the situation”.
He added: “We’re ready for war. We can bring Jersey to its knees if necessary.”
Jersey’s External Affairs Minister, Ian Gorst, said he and the local environment minister will be meeting French fishermen on Thursday morning.
The Commodore Goodwill freight ferry was initially unable to leave the harbour due to the flotilla.
Condor CEO Paul Luxon tweeted: “Sadly she is trapped, we tried to bring her in earlier so in – discharge, load – out, and on her way, but in dialogue with Jersey Authorities ‘safety first’ of course.'”
Two local boats from Jersey joined the protest, the report added.
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing described the scene at the port of St Helier on Thursday morning as “like an invasion”, with the French fleet mostly made up of “big French dredgers and trawlers” of 12 metres or more.
Mr Dearing, 28, said: “There were probably about 60 boats. There were a few hand-held flares and smoke flares going off and apparently a few maybe 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.”
Paris has warned it could cut off power to the island, which receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through three undersea cables, in retaliation for the fallout.
French maritime minister Annick Girardin warned on Tuesday that the country was ready to take “retaliatory measures”, accusing Jersey of dragging its feet over issuing new licences to French boats.
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A UK 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.”
John Healey MP, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said the threats on Jersey are “completely unreasonable”, as he urged the Government to meet with their French counterparts and the island’s authorities.
He added: “The Navy’s experience in sensitive situations will help reassure residents and protect Britain’s broader national interests.
“The British government must now get round the table with French colleagues and authorities in Jersey and sort this issue out.”
Don Thompson, president of Jersey Fishermen’s Association, said the “big question on everybody’s lips right now is ‘will our Government capitulate to that sort of tactic?’”
He told Good 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.”
He said it would be “grossly unfair” if the Government does “capitulate to that” and said such tactics might be used “again and again in the future”.
He added: “They’re not very happy fishermen down here this morning, suspecting that we probably will see our Government give in to that.”
Mr Thompson said Jersey’s fishermen had told the Government they are prepared to ditch their fishing licences if the French win their demands.
He added: “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.”
He said: “It would be grossly unfair and highly discriminatory on our fleet to have to fish against that huge (French) fleet out there in our waters and see those boats have no constraints whatsoever and for our boats to be subject to all sorts of conditions.
“That would just be absolutely unacceptable.”
He added: “They are disproportionate to the issues that are being experienced in the post-Brexit trade licensing issuing.”
The UK and Jersey have already criticised France for making “disproportionate” threats after Paris warned it could cut off electricity to the island.
The row began after the island implemented new requirements under the terms of the UK-EU trade deal for boats to submit evidence of their past fishing activities in order to receive a licence to carry on operating in Jersey waters.
A UK Government spokesman earlier said: “To threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate.
“We are working closely with the EU and Jersey on fisheries access provisions following the end of the transition period so trust the French will use the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems.”
“It would seem disproportionate to cut off electricity for the sake of needing to provide extra details so that we can refine the licences.”
On Wednesday Mr Gorst held talks with Marc Lefevre, the president of the La Manche region of northern France, on the “difficult set of issues relating to fishing licences”.
“There are a number of important matters which we will continue to work through,” he said.
Jersey receives 95% of its electricity from France through three undersea cables.
Ms Girardin told the French parliament that it gave Paris the “means” to act against the island if the issue could not be resolved.
“Even though I am sorry that it has come to this, we will do so if we have to,” she said.
Mr Gorst, however, said the island was not seeking to bar boats which had historically fished in Jersey waters and insisted the dispute could 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.”
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