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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

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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