French fishing boats return home following their protest in front of the port of Saint Helier off the British island of Jersey

Saint Helier (Jersey) (AFP) - French trawlers withdrew from waters around Jersey on Thursday after a protest over post-Brexit fishing rights that led to a brief standoff between British and French navy and coastal patrol boats.

The latest blow to cross-Channel relations was caused by angry French fishermen protesting over new fish licensing arrangements on the Channel island of Jersey following Britain’s departure from the European Union.

At dawn, a flotilla of around 50 trawlers massed in front of the Saint Helier harbour on Jersey, a picturesque self-governing territory that is dependent on Britain for its defence.

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 coast patrol vessels.

“We won’t be intimidated by these manoeuvres,” French Europe Minister Clement Beaune told AFP of the navy deployment.

A flare is lit as French fishing boats protest in front of the Jersey port of Saint Helier on Thursday

Jersey lies just off France’s northern coast and its rich fishing waters were previously open to French boats before Brexit tore up the previous arrangements.

In the middle of the afternoon, after hours of bobbing around while letting off the occasional smoke flare, the French trawlers began withdrawing.

“The show of force is over, now it’s politics that has to pick up the baton,” Dimitri Rogoff, president of the fishing association in the French Normandy region.

The British navy vessels HMS Severn and HMS Tamar were sent to Jersey’s waters to “monitor the situation”, the UK government said on Thursday, while a French military source said the situation was “very calm overall”.

Johnson spoke to Jersey Chief Minister John Le Fondre on Wednesday, when the pair “stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions,” according to a statement.

- Electric threat -

In the run up to Thursday’s protest, French fishermen had been loudly complaining about new licensing requirements announced by Jersey authorities.

They view the paperwork as deliberately obstructing them – the same charge made by other French boat owners who have denounced delays in the licensing process for access to British territorial waters.

At the end of last month, more than a hundred French fishermen briefly blocked trucks carrying British fish to processing plants in the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

French fishing boats massed Thursday at the main port at Saint Helier, on the Channel island of Jersey

French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin escalated tensions with Jersey on Tuesday by warning that France could cut off electricity supplies to the island, a threat condemned by the British government as “unacceptable”.

But Europe Minister Beaune accused Britain of being to blame for the spat over Jersey and access to waters close to the UK coast where French fishermen should have the right to continue working.

“Our wish is not to have tensions, but to have a quick and full application of the (Brexit) deal,” he told AFP.

The Channel island of Jersey

“That’s the case for Jersey and that’s the case for the licences we are waiting for in the Hauts de France” region.

One of the French patrol boats deployed to the area was from the gendarme military police force, the other was a coastal security vessel operated by the maritime ministry.

- Old rivalry -

The escalating tensions landed on the front pages of most British newspapers.

“Boris sends gunboats into Jersey,” read a Daily Mail headline, while The Daily Telegraph said Johnson had sent the navy to the island to “face the French”.

On social media, some pointed out that the standoff was taking place just a day after the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon, whose rivalry with the UK crown was legendary.

Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst from the Eurasia Group consultancy, wrote that Johnson’s decision to deploy the royal navy would give him a boost on a day when Britons were voting in local and regional elections.

“Although feelings are running high among the fishermen, some concessions over licences is likely to eventually calm matters,” he wrote.

Jersey’s External Relations Minister, Ian Gorst, told the BBC: “We’ve always known that the transition from the previous arrangement that we had with France over fishing rights in Jersey waters to the new post-Brexit trade deal was going to be difficult.”

He condemned the French threat to cut off electricity, as well as the protest, “but the answer to the issues that are being faced are without doubt talking and diplomacy”.

The scenes in Jersey stirred memories of the so-called “Cod Wars” of the 1960s and 1970s between Britain and Iceland which saw London deploy navy vessels to protect British trawlers.

In October 2018, dozens of French scallop fishermen confronted a handful of British rivals off the French coast, with a few vessels ramming into each other amid stone-throwing and smoke-bombs.