Brussels has accused Britain of breaking the newly ratified EU-UK trade deal in a dispute over Jersey fishing licences as Royal Navy ships arrived in the island’s waters because of the escalating row.
The European Commission said the UK’s failure to justify and give advance warning about special conditions attached to the fishing licences ran counter to its obligations under the trade agreement, which was ratified last week.
The licences are at the heart of a dispute that has inflamed Franco-British relations following complaints from French fishermen about being forced to provide electronic monitoring data to prove they have operated in Jersey waters before.
Small boat owners argue that they do not have GPS technology and the other electronic surveillance equipment required. Other special conditions attached to the licences relate to the fishing gear itself.
The commission said that Brussels had “indicated to the UK” that the provisions of the trade deal “have not been met . . . have not been respected”.
But one senior British official disputed that the terms of the UK-EU trade deal had been broken. “Jersey have acted within the terms of the TCA [trade and co-operation agreement],” the individual said.
“If the EU encounters a difficulty, as French fishermen seem to, rather than using threatening language — as some French ministers have — or trying to blockade a foreign port, they should use the dispute resolution mechanisms in the TCA, which the European Parliament has just ratified.”
Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, said he had spoken to David Frost, his UK counterpart. “Our aim is not to keep tensions high but to have a rapid and complete application of the agreement,” he added.
After French threats this week to cut off the island’s electricity supply, two Royal Navy ships — HMS Tamar and HMS Severn — patrolled the crowded waters off Jersey as dozens of French fishing boats arrived to protest against the restrictions on their activity. France also deployed two vessels along the maritime boundary between French and Jersey waters.
Some 60 French ships sailed to the port of St Helier on Thursday morning. Although some red flares were set off, the protests appear to remain peaceful. Boris Johnson spoke to Jersey’s chief minister and foreign affairs minister on Thursday, reiterating his “unequivocal support” for Jersey.
British officials were caught by surprise at the rapid escalation of the dispute. The long-running haggling over fishing licences had not reached Johnson’s desk until the spat blew up this week.
Events were being monitored in Downing Street, but Johnson’s allies said they were confident the Jersey administration would solve the dispute and understood the need to de-escalate it.
Number 10 said the Royal Navy patrol vessels would “remain in place to monitor the situation as a precautionary measure”.
The French navy said the two patrol vessels had been deployed on the orders of the civil authorities. Fishermen from France’s Normandy coast said they had worked in these waters for years but faced unreasonable curbs in the aftermath of Brexit.
French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.
Dimitri Rogoff, who heads the Normandy regional fishing committee, said the idea was not to blockade St Helier but to make a point.
Fisherman Camille Lécureuil told AFP, the French news agency, that the protesters had decided on Thursday morning to stop a cargo vessel, the Commodore Goodwill, from leaving the port, although the vessel later left for Guernsey.
“It’s a peaceful movement, there’s no need for things to get out of hand,” he said. “We even have support from Jersey. Three fishing boats from the island have come to support us.”
Jersey, the largest member of the Channel Islands archipelago and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.
The commission said Brussels became concerned when it was notified by the UK government on April 30 that 41 licences had been granted to EU vessels fishing in Jersey’s territorial waters, but that additional conditions had been attached.
The waters around Jersey are covered by the fishing chapter of the EU-UK trade and future-relationship deal struck in the final days of 2020. The agreement sets out a system for maintaining some pre-Brexit fishing rights, including rights for the boats that have a tradition of operating in coastal waters to continue doing so by getting licences.
The commission said any changes to licensing rules “have to be based on a clear scientific rationale”, not discriminate between EU and UK boats, and “be notified in advance to the other party, [giving] sufficient time to assess and react”.
Under the terms of the trade deal, should the dispute persist, the EU side could request the formation of an arbitration panel to review the situation, backed with the threat of trade sanctions if either side does not comply with the panel’s ruling.