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ANALYSIS: ‘We’re ready for war’ – How far will France’s post-Brexit fishing row with Jersey go?

War has been declared between France (population 66,000,000) and the Bailiwick of Jersey (population not quite 100,000), writes John Lichfield as he examines the gravity of the latest cross-Channel fishing flare up.

ANALYSIS: 'We're ready for war' - How far will France's post-Brexit fishing row with Jersey go?
Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

For now, it is a war of words. However, the French minister for the sea, no less, has warned that she will, if necessary, switch off the lights in France’s tiny, troublesome near neighbour.

Over 90 percent of the tiny UK crown dependancy’s electricity comes through three cables from France just over 12 miles away.

What’s it all about? Fish of course. And Brexit.

Who is right and who is wrong?

It is complicated. Fisheries are always complicated, even slippery.

There is some right and some wrong on both sides but, as far as I can establish, the Jersey government has behaved oddly – provocatively and with less than complete honesty. There is no similar problem between France and the other big Channel Island, Guernsey.

The French government suspects that Boris Johnson’s government has engineered the dispute as part of a wider campaign of minor harassment of French fishing boats to distract from its own surrender on fisheries rights in the Brexit deal just before Christmas.

The UK government says that fisheries rights in Jersey waters are an entirely an affair for the island’s (or bailwick’s) government. Britain is responsible only for the Channel Islands’ diplomatic relations and has been seeking to broker a deal for Jersey with the EU and France.

That may be legally correct. The Channel Islands are the only fragment of Duke William’s dukedom to have remained independent of France. They are “owned” by the Queen but they are not part of the UK and were never part of the European Union.

The present dispute has similarities, however, with a completely unnecessary spat engineered recently by the British government over the details of post-Brexit, French access to the waters between 6 and 12 miles off the English coast. In both cases, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) speaks of “unfortunate misunderstandings” over the details of licencing arrangements for French fishing boats.

I would be happy to accept such assurances from Defra if it did not have such a long record of lying about fishing – especially under its present Secretary of State, George Eustice. 

Defra over-fished its “trust us” quota long ago.

On the other hand, the French are not entirely blameless. It was somewhat excessive of Annick Girardin, the minister for maritime affairs, to threaten to turn off Jersey’s lights while the dispute is still under discussion. Some of the nationalist rhetoric of fishermen’s leaders and local politicians in Normandy and especially Brittany has also gone off the deep end.

In essence, the dispute has nothing to do with Brexit and is everything to do with Brexit.

The complex pattern of fishing rights around and in between the Channel Islands has been a vexed question for centuries. Such rights were outside the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

In 2000, Britain and the Channel Islands government signed an agreement with France (The Treaty of the Bay of Granville) which established a pattern of rights for French boats up to 3 miles from the islands’ coasts. Last year, Britain and the islands said they were terminating the treaty as part of the “it’s all our fish now” policy as the end of Brexit transition approached. An interim deal was reached.

Despite anxious complaints by Norman and Breton fishermen and politicians, the question of the Îles Anglo-Normandes was not addressed in the final flurry of Brexit trade negotiations in December. Last month it seemed this had finally been settled.  French boats which had habitually fished in Channel Islands waters would automatically be licensed to continue doing so.

Over 250 Norman and Breton fishing boats rely on their catches around the islands – an industry which supports 900 families and 2,000 jobs on sea and land. At the same time, Channel Islands boats depend almost entirely on their rights to sell fish in Granville, Cherbourg and other French ports.

When they examined the licences issued by the Jersey government last Friday, however, French fishermen found they bore no relation to what had been promised. The licences varied, with no apparent logic, between the right to fish for 170 days a year and the right to fish for seven days.

Claude La Vaullée, a Norman skipper who has fished off Jersey for 40 years, found that his boat, Le Cach, had been given the right to fish for 11 hours a year. He told the regional newspaper Ouest France, that he and other skippers had now equipped their vessels to “re-stage the Battle of Trafalgar”.

Such restrictions were not mentioned in the negotiations and were not communicated to Paris or Brussels, French officials say. They were a unilateral decision by the Jersey government.

David Sellam, head of the joint Normany-Brittany sea authority, said : “We are confronted by people who are not trustworthy. Jersey has been taken over by an extremist fringe, who want to reduce French fishing access and profit from Brexit.

“We’re ready for war. We can bring Jersey to its knees if necessary.”

Jersey politicians say it’s all a big misunderstanding (which suggests that they are preparing to climb down). The external Relations Minister Ian Gorst told the BBC yesterday that the licences issued last Friday were based on proof of past fishing activities. But there was no time limit, he said. The French fishing industry could provide more evidence if they needed extra, or more generous, licences.

Do the French fishermen have such evidence easily available? Some do and some perhaps don’t.

But all fishing activity is now so strictly regulated that it should not be difficult – if there is goodwill on all sides – for the French government to provide reasonable proof.

Is there goodwill on the Jersey and UK side? I expect that the threat of black-outs (however excessive the threat) will concentrate minds in Saint-Helier.

I suspect this dispute will not last long.

Member comments

  1. Jersey is not powerless in this dispute. The State-owned French electric company EDF has several million UK customers who could all choose to switch supplier if they felt so inclined. I don’t know why France has decided to go nuclear on this. The EU hasn’t. Perhaps they know that the French vessels can’t prove their fishing history through logged catches and the rest and consequently only intimidation will get them what they want. Not a pretty picture.

    1. If France were to turn off the electricity supply, I think Jersey would be completely justified in revoking all fishing permits for not only French but all EU vessels.

      1. And their catch would be sold where? I smell the hand of useless Eustace behind this. It is very much in the interest of Johnson et al to whip the gullible up into a frenzy of hate.

  2. Cast your mind back to the scallops dispute. The French fishing fleet, with their industrial scale boats threatening and in some cases ramming smaller boats. Their actions could have resulted in tragedy. French farmers burning sheep carcasses from the UK ring a bell?
    The various agricultural, fishing and farming groups have a long history of this kind of bullying behavior. The French fishing industry doesn’t give a stuff about sustainability either, it’s all about profit.

      1. I was hitherto unaware that culinary knowledge excused boorish, aggressive behaviour. I stand corrected.

  3. Who cares? If Jersey, Guernsey, Whatever have issue, produce your own electricity. It’s your sovereign right. Who needs the EU?

  4. Given the general dishonesty displayed by the UK government over the past two years, I know which side I support (even if their approach is also infantile at times).

  5. But they would have to do it by candlelight with a biro and wait for the next French boat to take their letters to the mainland.
    This absurd posturing by Jersey is Brexit writ large; a trivial island off the coast of Europe with ideas above its staion.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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