Brexit Brinkmanship: Britain Deploys Warships as French Fishing Dispute Escalates

Britain has sent two warships to the English Channel in an escalating dispute with France over fishing rights. French fishermen say they are being prevented from accessing the waters around the British island of Jersey. Around two dozen French trawlers sailed to the island to protest Thursday, setting off flares and displaying banners demanding access to Jersey waters. One French vessel briefly entered the main harbor on the island. French trawlerman Ludovic Lazaro was among those taking part in the demonstration. “We come today because we have always fished in the waters there. We have always fished here and then overnight they take away all our fishing rights,” Lazaro told Agence France Presse. Britain deployed two warships to the area Thursday to “monitor the situation.” France has also deployed two maritime patrol vessels to French waters around Jersey. The British and French ships remained around 20 kilometers apart. A French fishing vessel blocks the port of St Helier in Jersey, May 6, 2021.Talks between the fishermen and Jersey authorities to resolve the dispute were ongoing Thursday. Jersey has its own government but is also a “Crown Dependency,” meaning Britain is responsible for the defense of the island. It lies just off the northern French coast. Under Britain’s exit deal from the European Union, special provisions were included for the island’s fishing grounds, notes fisheries expert James Kane of the U.K. nonprofit group the Institute for Government. “French boats that were catching fish in Jersey waters for at least 10 days a year between 2017 and 2020 have the right to continue doing so on into the future. What it seems has happened is that the Jersey authorities have taken a very restrictive approach to proving that you were fishing and how much you were fishing in the last three years,” Kane told VOA. Ian Gorst, the external relations minister for the government of Jersey, insists the correct regulations are being applied. “The new post-Brexit trade deal is clear that evidence had to be provided of the nature and extent of historic fishing rights,” Gorst told Sky News on Thursday. “We want to give French fishermen who can prove they have fished in our waters historically, the rights that they had previously but evidence has to be provided.” Fishing vessels gather at sea off the coast of Jersey, May 6, 2021. French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters off the coast have gathered their boats in protest off the English Channel island of Jersey.Speaking to lawmakers in the National Assembly, French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin threatened to cut off Jersey’s electricity supply. “We are ready to use these retaliatory measures,” Girardin said Tuesday. “Europe — France — has the means, it’s written into the agreement. So, as far as Jersey is concerned, I would remind you, for example, of the transport of electricity by submarine cables.” British minister Nadhim Zahawi said Thursday that the government would seek a solution to the dispute. “[We’ll] work together to make sure that operationally, on the ground, we iron out any issues, any problems so that this historic deal between the United Kingdom and the EU, one of the most important deals we have struck, we’ve put in place, works for people, for communities, for the fishing communities,” Zahawi told Sky News. Fishing makes up a fraction of 1% of British and European economies — but remains a potent cultural and political force, says analyst James Kane. “Fishermen are after all — in a modern economy — they’re the only people who are still hunter-gatherers,” Kane said. “They go out and find food and bring it back. And so there’s that kind of primal dimension to fishing that maybe makes it a bit sensitive,” he added. “In addition to that, it’s deeply rooted in coastal communities. People seem to care very much about it to a degree that is wildly disproportionate to its economic importance. And then, politically as well, it’s quite frankly useful for both sides to be pushing this story because it has so much resonance.” The European Union has called for a de-escalation of the dispute. However, analysts say tensions over fishing will likely continue as Britain seeks to fulfil its Brexit promise to “take back control” of its waters and borders. 

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