UPDATED: UK withdraws patrol boats from Jersey after post-Brexit fishing row

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PARIS (Reuters) -Britain withdrew its Royal Navy vessels from the waters off Jersey on Thursday but said it would remain on standby to support the Channel island after a dispute with France over post-Brexit fishing rights escalated rapidly. 

France and Britain both deployed maritime patrol vessels to the area after a flotilla of French trawlers sailed in protest to Jersey’s main harbour and a French minister suggested earlier in the week that Paris might cut electricity to the island.

French fishermen say they are being unfairly deprived of access to rich fishing grounds off the coast of Jersey, a self-governing British Crown Dependency. 

Jersey says it is following the rules for issuing licenses set out in Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union. Britain said it backed Jersey. The EU called for calm. 

After the French fishing boats left the area, the British government said its Royal Navy Offshore Patrol Vessels would prepare to return to port in the UK as the “situation is resolved for now”.

“We are pleased that French fishing boats have now left the vicinity of Jersey,” a spokeswoman for the government said. “We remain on standby to provide any further assistance Jersey requests.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the 2016 Brexit campaign, had cast the trade deal as a way to take back control of the United Kingdom’s destiny after Brexit.

On Thursday, he had said the two vessels would remain off Jersey as a precautionary measure, according to his office.

An official from the French presidency said the deployment of patrol vessels from both France and Britain was aimed at preventing clashes between trawlers on opposing sides of the row.

FRENCH FLOTILLA

France is angry that on April 30 Jersey issued 41 licenses with what the Paris government called unilaterally imposed conditions, including the time French fishing vessels could spend in Jersey’s waters.

Hugo Lehuby, spokesman for the Normandy Regional Fisheries Committee, said talks between island officials and representatives of the fishermen were not positive.

“We’re getting deeper into deadlock,” Lehuby told Reuters. “Either this gets resolved, or retaliatory measures are taken.”

Jersey officials have said the accord stipulates licenses take into account how much time a vessel spent in Jersey’s waters before Brexit.

The European Commission said that until further justifications had been provided by Britain, Jersey officials should not be attaching new conditions to the issuance of licenses.

“Full compliance with the TCA (Brexit trade deal) is essential in this process,” Commission spokeswoman Vivian Loonela told a news briefing.

The fleet of about 50 fishing boats left the shores of Jersey, which lies 14 miles off northern France and 85 miles from Britain’s southern coast, in the early afternoon. They had arrived at dawn, with some crew holding red flares aloft.

At least one French trawler entered the harbour and briefly blocked the Commodore Goodwill, a cargo vessel and ferry that connects the Channel Islands to the British mainland.

The French presidency official said the deployment of patrol vessels spoke of France’s concern and frustration.

Earlier

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that two Royal Navy vessels would remain off the British Channel island of Jersey amid an escalating row with France over post-Brexit fishing rights, his office said.

The statement came during a call between Johnson and Jersey’s Chief Minister John Le Fondré and other senior figures on the island, a spokesperson for the prime minister said.

“The Prime Minister reiterated his unequivocal support for Jersey and confirmed that the two Royal Navy Offshore Patrol Vessels would remain in place to monitor the situation as a precautionary measure,” the spokesperson said.

The European Union’s executive called on Thursday for calm after both the French and British navies sent boats to waters around the British Channel island of Jersey amid a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights.

“We are continuing our discussions with the UK and we call for calm,” a European Commission spokeswoman told a news briefing.

French trawler crews angry at post-Brexit restrictions on their access to British fishing grounds sailed on Thursday in a flotilla to the British Channel island of Jersey to register their protest.

A simmering row over fishing rights has escalated this week, with a French minister suggesting French electricity supplies to Jersey could be cut, and Britain despatching two navy patrol boats to the island.

The French Navy said on Thursday that it also had sent two patrol boats to the waters around the British Channel Island of Jersey, reciprocating an earlier gesture by Britain which had also sent two Royal Navy boats amid a dispute by French fishermen.

French trawler crews, angry at post-Brexit restrictions on their access to British fishing grounds, had earlier sailed in a flotilla to Jersey to register their protest.

Hugo Lehuby, a representative for the Normandy regional fishing committee which helped organise Thursday’s protest, said the French flotilla would not seek to impede access to Jersey ports, or stop local fishing vessels from operating.

“The objective is to express our unhappiness about the restrictive measures that were imposed,” Lehuby told Reuters by telephone, adding that he expected the flotilla to return to their home ports by the end of Thursday.

“This is not a blockade,” he said. “It’s not our objective to smash stuff up.”

Ship-tracking website marinetraffic.com showed around 25 French-registered vessels off the Jersey port of St Helier on Thursday morning.

The same website showed that one of the two British naval vessels despatched to the island, HMS Tamar, was positioned approximately 6 km (4 miles) to the south-west of the flotilla.

The second vessel, HMS Severn, was around 9 km to the west. Neither of the vessels appeared to be moving towards the French flotilla.

A spokeswoman for the Jersey government said officials were monitoring the situation, but had no immediate comment.

The island of Jersey sits 14 miles (23 km) off the northern French coast and 85 miles (140 km) south of Britain’s shores.

Jersey’s government said the island had issued new fishing permits in accordance with the post-Brexit trade terms, which included new conditions for license-holders.

That angered French trawler crews and the French government, who said the new terms had been imposed unilaterally and without discussion, and that they placed unfair restrictions on French fishing vessels.

Photo: File photo by EPA-EFE/Lphot SAM SEELEY / BRITISH MINISTRY OF DEFENCE