Boris Johnson has ordered two Royal Navy vessels to head to Jersey to protect the Channel Island from an imminent blockade by French fishermen as the row over post-Brexit fishing rights escalated rapidly on Tuesday evening.
The decision to send in the offshore patrol vessels came after the Prime Minister held emergency talks with the chief minister of Jersey on Wednesday evening, with as many as 60 French boats expected to descend on its main port, St Helier.
The flotilla, made up of fishermen angered by Jersey’s decision to place new restrictions on fishing licences granting access to its waters, has threatened to bring the island “to its knees”.
The Jersey government is expecting the blockade to begin on Thursday morning. While the island is largely self-governed, it can request the assistance of the UK to help carry out enforcement activity.
The Marine Management Organisation – which patrols Britain’s waters – has four Royal Navy river-class offshore patrol vessels at its disposal, which are tasked with enforcement and protection of fisheries.
In a statement, a Downing Street spokesman said: “This evening the Prime Minister spoke to the Chief Minister of Jersey, Senator John Le Fondré, and the Minister of External Affairs, Ian Gorst, about the prospect of a blockade of Saint Helier.
“The Prime Minister and Chief Minister stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions and for dialogue between Jersey and France on fishing access. The Prime Minister underlined his unwavering support for Jersey. He said that any blockade would be completely unjustified. As a precautionary measure, the UK will be sending two offshore patrol vessels to monitor the situation.
“They agreed the UK and Jersey governments would continue to work closely on this issue.”
Separately, Lord Frost, the Cabinet minister in charge of EU relations, held talks in Westminster to discuss a co-ordinated response should the fishermen follow through with their threat.
The late-night discussions came less than 24 hours after Annick Giradin, the French maritime minister, said on Tuesday that Paris could shut down three undersea cables that provide Jersey with 95 percent of its electricity if the dispute over fishing licences were not resolved.
Her comments prompted a furious backlash in Whitehall, with Number 10 callling the French threat “clearly unacceptable and disproportionate”.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, and the trade minister Greg Hands have contacted the French government to raise their concerns over what the UK believes to be a clear provocation.
George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, is also reported to have tried to establish talks with the French maritime minister to try and resolve the issue, but his calls did not appear to have been taken up on Wednesday evening.
Jersey, which is 14 miles from France and has a population of 108,000, would face power cuts if the threat was carried out. The remaining 5 per cent of the largest Channel Island’s energy mix, and its back-up power, is largely on-island diesel generators and gas.
“At least when the Germans invaded they kept the lights on,” one Government source said, referring to Jersey’s five years of occupation during World War Two.
While UK sources said that the French authorities in Normandy were seeking to calm tensions, officials warned that a “significant” number of French fishermen were intent on “taking the law into their own hands”.
Didier Leguelinel, from the Normandy fishing committee, said: “The general feeling is that we have been insulted by the Jersey government.” He told The Telegraph he could not stop the fleet of furious fishermen from blockading Jersey.
Fishermen shouted: “We’re going to block St Helier and stop [Jersey] fishermen from unloading their fish products in our ports” during a Monday meeting.
David Sellam, the head of the joint Normany-Brittany sea authority, said: “We are confronted by people who are not trustworthy. Jersey has been taken over by an extremist fringe, who want to reduce French fishing access and profit from Brexit.
“We’re ready for war. We can bring Jersey to its knees if necessary.”
The row erupted as Jersey enforced new UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement requirements for EU boats to prove historical fishing activity to get a licence to fish the island’s waters. The UK authorised 41 ships to fish in waters off Jersey – a fraction of the 344 boats that requested access.
France also claimed it was blindsided by new unilateral demands setting out where ships can and cannot go, the number of days at sea and what machinery can be used.
Ms Giradin told Le Parisien magazine on Wednesday that France wished to maintain “good neighbourly relations” with Jersey but repeated that the new demands and conditions were “quite simply unacceptable”.
A British Government spokesman urged EU member France to use dispute mechanisms in the new Brexit trade deal to settle the row rather than resort to switching off the lights. The deal has a series of dispute resolution procedures, which can ultimately lead to the imposition of fines or trade tariffs.
“To threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate,” the spokesman said.
Jersey oversees fishing rules in its waters, but the UK is responsible for its international relations, including the Brexit trade deal.
Mr Gorst said all but 17 of the 41 boats had provided the necessary evidence and that the island did not want to stop French boats fishing Jersey’s waters.
France threatened to block any EU decision granting the City of London access to the Single Market in a similar row over fishing licences late April, which saw French fishermen blockading lorries carrying British catch to Boulogne-de-Mer.
Marie Carof-Gadel, of regional newspaper Ouest-France, said the government – which has presidential elections next year – was scared of its fishermen, adding: “In France there is a tradition: as soon as fishermen move, the government trembles.”