A tense post-Brexit standoff between France and Britain was eased on Thursday, as London recalled two naval ships sent to Jersey and protesting French fishermen returning home without blocking the island’s main port.
The latest blow to Channel relations was caused by angry French fishermen who protested new fishing license schemes on the Channel Island following Britain’s departure from the European Union.
By daybreak a fleet of about 50 trawlers had gathered in front of the port of Saint Helier in Jersey, a picturesque self-governing area dependent on Great Britain for its defense.
Fears of a blockade prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to send two Royal Navy gunboats to the area, with France following suit by sending two of its own coastal patrol craft.
But after the fishing vessels retreated in the afternoon, Johnson ordered the naval vessels to be returned.
“As the situation has been resolved for the time being, the Royal Navy Offshore Patrol Vessels will prepare to return to port in the UK,” said a statement from his office.
“We remain on standby to provide Jersey with further assistance.”
Jersey is just off the north coast of France, and its rich fishing waters were previously open to French boats before Brexit tore up the earlier arrangements.
In the middle of the afternoon, after hours of bobbing and the occasional smoke screen, the French trawlers began to withdraw.
“The display of power is over, now politics must take over,” said Dimitri Rogoff, president of the fishermen’s association in the French region of Normandy.
British naval vessels HMS Severn and HMS Tamar were sent to Jersey waters to “monitor the situation,” the British government said, while a French military source said the situation was “generally very calm.”
Johnson spoke with Jersey Chief Minister John Le Fondre on Wednesday and the pair “stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation of tensions,” said a statement.
Leading up to Thursday’s protest, French fishermen had been loudly complaining about new licensing requirements announced by Jersey authorities.
They see the paperwork as a deliberate hindrance to them – the same accusation from other French boat owners who have denounced delays in the licensing process for entry into British waters.
At the end of last month, more than 100 French fishermen briefly blocked trucks transporting British fish to processing plants in the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer.
French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin escalated tensions with Jersey on Tuesday by warning that France could cut electricity to the island, a threat that London has condemned as “unacceptable”.
Jersey Secretary of State Ian Gorst told AFP that Girardin’s comments were “utterly inappropriate”.
“Let’s have no rhetoric, no threats – let’s sit down with the EU,” he said. “We have to work hard and find ways to solve the problems.”
But the French Minister of Europe, Clement Beaune, accused Britain of being guilty of the spit, insisting that French fishermen have the right to continue working in these waters.
“Our wish is not to have any tensions, but to have a quick and complete application of the (Brexit) deal,” he told AFP.
One of the French patrol boats deployed in the area belonged to the Gendarme Military Police, while the other was a coastal security vessel operated by the Maritime Ministry.
The mounting tensions hit the front pages of most British newspapers.
“Boris sends gunboats to Jersey,” reads a Daily Mail headline, while The Daily Telegraph said Johnson sent the navy to the island to “defy the French.”
On social media, some pointed out that the standoff occurred just a day after the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon, whose rivalry with the British crown was legendary.
Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst for the Eurasia Group consultancy, suggested that Johnson’s decision to deploy the navy would give him a boost on a day when British votes in local and regional elections.
“While sentiment is running high among fishermen, some licensing concessions will eventually calm things down,” he wrote.
The Jersey scenes evoked memories of the so-called “cod wars” of the 1960s and 1970s between Great Britain and Iceland, in which London deployed naval ships to protect British trawlers.
In October 2018, dozens of French scallop fishermen faced a handful of British rivals off the coast of France, with a pair of ships crashing into each other amidst rocks and smoke bombs.