Royal Navy boats in Jersey to return to port as protesting French fishermen leave

ITV News West of England Correspondent Rupert Evelyn has details of how the standoff has been left

Two Royal Navy patrol boats in Jersey are to return to port after the island's government said it had a "constructive meeting" with French fishermen on the dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights.

Authorities in Jersey have promised further talks to help resolve the row. But the French government continued to accuse the British government of failing to abide by the terms of the Brexit trade deal and warned it would “use all the leverage at our disposal” to protect its fishing industry.

The European Union (EU) also complained to Britain earlier on Thursday that the terms of its post-Brexit trade deal were being ignored.

Rupert Evelyn explains what the two sides have said on the disagreement

In Brussels, a spokesperson for the European Commission said “additional conditions” attached to the new licences represented a breach of the trade deal hammered out on Christmas Eve.

The Royal Navy boats, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, along with French patrol vessels were despatched to Jersey earlier on Thursday after about 60 French fishing boats protested in waters off the island's capital, St Helier.

The UK vessels were deployed in response to fears the French boats could blockade St Helier, although the protest leaders denied they were seeking to impose a blockade. Meanwhile, the French maritime authority for the Channel sent two police vessels to the area “to ensure the protection of human life at sea”.

French fishermen set off flares, entered the harbour and appeared to ram a Jersey vessel on Thursday morning.

French fishing vessels gather at Jersey's St Helier harbour

At lunchtime, the protesting vessels headed back to France.

Boris Johnson said he was “pleased that the situation in Jersey has been resolved” and thanked the Royal Navy for the swift response.

“The UK will always stand resolutely by the people of Jersey,” the prime minister said.

Jersey’s Chief Minister, Senator John Le Fondré said: “The French fishermen protested peacefully and respectfully, and were able to set out their concerns directly to government representatives.

“We recognise that there have been challenges in the implementation of the new trade agreement.

"Speaking directly to the fishermen has enabled both parties to better understand how those challenges will be addressed, and we are proposing the establishment of a forum which will enable the Government of Jersey to continue to engage with all fishermen in the region openly and constructively.

“I’d like to thank Deputy Guida and all the other parties whose work has enabled the French fishermen to leave Jersey knowing that they had been listened to, and that a step has been taken towards resolving the issues that have arisen during the move to the new trade agreement.”

A spokesperson for the French ministry for Europe and foreign affairs said Paris will use “all the leverage at our disposal” to protect the fishing industry.

He said “Amid the tensions that followed the British failure to abide by the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement in regard to licences for our fishermen in British waters, we are acting in a spirit of responsibility.

“We hope the situation will be swiftly resolved by the full and total implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which provides for continued access to British waters for fishermen with a history of working in those waters prior to Brexit.

A boat from Jersey collides with a French vessel in an attempt to keep it from reaching the harbour

“It is our only goal, and we want to use all the leverage at our disposal to protect the fishing industry and enable it to continue its activities.”

A French minister spoke to the UK’s Brexit minister Lord Frost on Thursday morning about the issue, the spokesperson said.

In an attempt to diffuse tensions earlier on Thursday, representatives from Jersey's government headed to the harbour to meet with some of the French fishermen. The protesters requested the meeting as they wanted Jersey's officials to hear their concerns directly.

The 90-minute meeting was held between Jersey’s assistant minister for the environment, Deputy Gregory Guida, Government of Jersey officers, and representatives from some of the estimated 56 French vessels.

To comply with Jersey’s coronavirus guidelines, the government representatives used the Norman Le Brocq Fisheries boat, while the French fishermen used another boat.

A French fishing vessel protests with flares in Jersey's waters

A UK government spokesperson said the issue appeared to be "resolved for now" and Royal Navy patrol vessels were returningf to port.

He said: “We are pleased that French fishing boats have now left the vicinity of Jersey.

“Given the situation is resolved for now, the Royal Navy Offshore Patrol Vessels will prepare to return to port in the UK. We remain on standby to provide any further assistance Jersey requests.

“The Trade and Cooperation Agreement brought in changes to fishing arrangements between the UK and the EU.

“Jersey authorities have a right to regulate fisheries in their waters under this agreement and we support them in exercising those rights.

Boats, including one flying the French flag, gather at St Helier Harbour

“We will work with Jersey to support the discussions under way with the European Commission.”

Jersey’s external relations minister Ian Gorst said around lunchtime he believed talks had been “positive”.

He said: “We agreed that all sides remain committed to engaging with our partners in the EU and France to resolve the concerns arising from the issuing of fishing licenses under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which led to today’s protest.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Chief Minister of Jersey, Senator John Le Fondre, and the Minister of External Affairs, Ian Gorst, while the protest was happening and underlined his "unequivocal support” for the island.

Earlier in the week, the French maritime minister Annick Girardin warned that the country was ready to take “retaliatory measures”. She accused the Channel Island of dragging its feet over issuing new licences to French boats.

Why were the French fishermen protesting?

Things have never been plain sailing when it comes to fishing rights, France and Jersey. But in 1839, a treaty was put in place to try and settle that conflict. It allowed the French to license their own boats to fish in Jersey's territorial waters.

It caused much contention - Jersey's fleet of around 75 registered vessels is far less than the hundreds of French boats that sail in local waters.

The Brexit deal has meant Jersey can manage its own waters, which was welcomed by many in the island  However, friction between French and Channel Island fishermen continued to rumble. Disputes around permits and paperwork followed the Brexit deal.Most recently, the Channel Island's new licensing scheme has angered the French. Officials there say there are more restrictions placed on them than was ever agreed with Jersey's External Relation's Minister, Senator Ian Gorst.

Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing described the scene at the port of St Helier earlier on Thursday as “like an invasion”, with the French fleet mostly made up of “big French dredgers and trawlers” of 12 metres or more.

The 28-year-old said: “There were a few hand-held flares and smoke flares going off and apparently a few maybe bangers and stuff going off from the French.

“It was quite a sight. It was impressive, I looked from the shore this morning and it was just like a sea of red lights and flares already going off at sea. It was like an invasion.”

The UK and Jersey have already criticised France for making “disproportionate” threats after Paris warned it could cut off electricity to the island.

The row began after the island implemented new requirements under the terms of the UK-EU trade deal for boats to submit evidence of their past fishing activities in order to receive a licence to carry on operating in Jersey waters.

The European Commission has said that the terms of the EU/UK trade deal are not being met in waters off the coast of Jersey, due to the conditions imposed on licences for French fishing boats there.

A member of the Jersey Militia shoots a blank-firing musket in an act of defiance as French fishing vessels protest at the port

Stephanie Yon-Courtin, a French MEP and member of the EU Fisheries Committee, called on the people of Jersey and the UK government to “understand that our fishermen need to carry on working”.

A UK government spokesman earlier said: “To threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate.

“We are working closely with the EU and Jersey on fisheries access provisions following the end of the transition period so trust the French will use the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems.”

Jersey receives 95% of its electricity from France through three undersea cables.

Ms Girardin told the French parliament that it gave Paris the “means” to act against the island if the issue could not be resolved.

“Even though I am sorry that it has come to this, we will do so if we have to,” she said.

Mr Gorst, however, said the island was not seeking to bar boats which had historically fished in Jersey waters and insisted the dispute could be resolved amicably.

He said that of the 41 boats which sought licences under the new rules last Friday, all but 17 had provided the evidence required.

“The trade deal is clear but I think there has been some confusion about how it needs to be implemented, because we absolutely respect the historic rights of French fishermen to fish in Jersey waters as they have been doing for centuries,” he said.