France, U.K. and the post-Brexit war over Jersey fish

This week, Jersey fishermen are bracing for a potential showdown with Britain over fishing rights after the U.K. government said it would create a new British “residency” in the Atlantic island state for EU citizens. This decision was met with dismay by the locals, who fear it will lead to an influx of migrants from Eastern Europe.

While we have already covered the devastating effects of the U.K.’s vote to exit the EU, it is worth noting that the French and British relationship has been further strained with the U.K. seeking an exemption from Jersey’s ban on live exports. This has prompted a new war of words between the French and British governments.

In early May 2021, about 60 French fishing boats threatened to block Jersey’s main port, St Helier, preventing goods from reaching or leaving the British island, 14 miles (22 km) from France. In response, the British Government sent two Royal Navy patrol ships, HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, to monitor the island protests in the English Channel. France reacted immediately: The government sent two vessels, the police cutter Athos and the patrol vessel Themis, to patrol the area. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government at the time also called unacceptable the threats by French Marine Minister Annick Girardin to cut off Jersey’s electricity supply, 95% of which comes from France via three undersea cables. The episode was the latest chapter in the dispute between Britain and France over fishing rights in the Channel and shows that, despite the trade deal with the European Union announced last December, some aspects of the post-Brexit relationship are still far from settled.

Jersey amends licence agreements

The current dispute concerns differing interpretations of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which currently governs economic relations between the UK and the US. And the EU after the Brexit. The CCA also replaced the Granville Bay Agreement of 2000, which regulated fishing rights in Jersey waters. Under the TCA, French fishermen must now show that they have fished in the area in the past if they are to be licensed to fish in Jersey waters. Following a preliminary agreement in January, the issuance of these new licences in Jersey began at the end of April. However, the French authorities claim that additional requirements were added without warning. The French fishermen, on the other hand, consider the new requirements to be unfair, such as the limitation on the number of days a vessel can fish in Jersey waters or on the type of fish it can catch. Under pressure from Boris Johnson who stressed the urgent need to defuse tensions and open a new dialogue on access to fishing, Jersey authorities have given French fishermen extra time to comply with the new rules. The island’s government says the extension to 1. July was a sign of goodwill that the dispute over France’s rights in the region could be resolved after the Brexit, he said. In return, the authorities of the French region of Normandy have lifted the ban on Jersey fishermen landing their catches in their ports.

Post-Brexit tension

However, this is far from the first dispute involving the fishing industry since the UK came into force on 1 January. Janvier has officially left the European Union In April, more than 100 French fishermen blocked trucks carrying fish from Britain to the largest fish processing centre in Europe in the northern French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. At the time, one of the protesters was carrying a sign that read: Want to save water? OKAY… So get your fish! Under a trade agreement between Britain and the European Union fishermen from the block can continue to fish in British waters, but only after obtaining a licence. These permits would be issued quickly, but according to fishermen in the Haute-France region, in April approximately 80% of the local fleet was still waiting for them. Also in late April, the Minister of State for European Affairs Clement Bonet, made a direct threat to Britain: The UK is looking to us for a range of financial services approvals. We will not do so until we are satisfied that the UK is meeting its commitments on fisheries and other issues. Everyone must honour their commitments, otherwise we will be as brutal and harsh as necessary, Bonet told French television station BFM, setting the tone for the debate on fishing rights in the region.

Regaining control of our seas

Although the UK fishing industry represents only 0.12% of the UK economy, it became a powerful symbol of the no-deal campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The slogan Take back control of our seas has become a symbol of the campaign for Britain’s departure from the EU. In the negotiations that followed confirmation of the Brexit, Britain demanded to regain full control of its fishing waters, while the EU insisted that the bloc’s fishing fleets would not lose access to Britain’s rich waters in the short term. Under the free trade agreement signed between the UK and the EU last December, EU fishing vessels have full access to UK waters until June 2026, with the EU holding 25% of fishing rights. Vessels in UK waters will be transferred to the UK fishing fleet over a five and a half year adjustment period – the EU had originally proposed a 14 year period. At the end of the transitional period, annual negotiations will take place between the two parties. It is expected that Britain will push for an increase in quotas and may even ban EU vessels from its waters altogether. However, such a drastic decision would certainly lead to retaliatory measures by the EU: Taxes on UK fish exports to the bloc’s countries or a veto on British ships’ access to EU waters. In recent years the main destination for UK fish exports has been the EU. According to the UK. Tradeinfo, fish exports to the EU were £1.4 billion ($1.98 billion) in 2019, 67% of all UK fish exports by value. France was the main destination for UK exports this year, accounting for 28% of all fish exports, worth £561 million ($793 million). Also in 2019, fish imports from the EU were £1.2 billion ($1.7 billion), or 35% of all UK fish imports by value. However, British fishermen complain that the immediate benefit of the increase in fishing quotas which they will receive under the new agreement will be wiped out by the end of the so-called quota exchange system which has hitherto enabled them to make agreements with fishermen from the European bloc. Many British fishermen, particularly from the south coast of England, also complain that the agreement signed last December still allows EU vessels to fish within 6 to 12 nautical miles of UK territorial waters – whereas British fishermen have demanded exclusive access to 12 nautical miles.

A long history of conflicts

Tensions between British and French fishermen in the English Channel last erupted in late August 2018, during an episode known as the scallop war. At the time, French ships off the coast of Normandy attacked British and Scottish ships with rocks, smoke bombs and other projectiles. The Scottish Whitefish Producers Association described the attacks at the time as piracy, as British vessels were operating legally in the area. Every year from 1. October to the 15th. In May, French legislation limits commercial shellfishing to reduce impacts on shellfish stocks. However, this rule does not apply to British fishermen, which infuriates the French. Six years earlier at 10. In October 2012, 40 French boats had cornered their British rivals 15 miles off the coast of Le Havre, pelting them with stones and trying to damage their propellers and engines. To justify this aggression, the French argued that the British had gone beyond the 12-mile limit of the EU’s common fisheries policy. However, this accusation was refuted by the British. As a result, both sides turned to their naval forces to restore peace in the region. Almost two decades ago, in March and April 1993, the two countries clashed again, this time over fishing in the Channel Islands. The incident known as the Cherbourg incident actually began in September 1992, when the European Union established Britain’s exclusive right to fish within six nautical miles of the islands, excluding French vessels that had previously fished without restriction in that area. After a series of incidents between the British Royal Navy and French fishermen, the French government agreed to implement the 1992 EU decision. However, tensions between Britain and France over fishing have existed since at least the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, when French fishermen, taking advantage of the lack of clear legislation, began to dominate commercial fishing on the south-East Coast of Britain, leading to an inquiry in the House of Commons in 1833. And today, almost two centuries later, a solution that would fully satisfy British and French Channel fishermen still seems remote – if not impossible.

Didn’t go far

The dispute between France and Britain brings to light two different discourses about what the fish trade between the two countries actually is and what is at stake in this debate. The first, reflecting reality and somewhat neglected by both governments, shows how dependent France and Britain are on each other on this issue. While on the one hand French fishermen need access to British waters to catch much of what they sell, on the other hand British fishermen undeniably need the European consumer market, particularly the French, to export what they produce. The second, on the other hand, reflects a political discourse far removed from reality, in which both countries appeal to their national pride and sell the idea that only the other side of the table has something to lose in these negotiations. It is this rhetoric that led British fishermen to support Brexit in 2016, and is now forcing the French to fight back in terms of fishing regulations for the post-Brexit period. The truth is that the problem is far from being solved and both countries will have to negotiate a lot – and show a little realism – to find a solution that does not endanger the fishing industry on either side of the channel.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Jersey fish in French waters?

A great deal of the United States’ fish is from overseas, but it’s been a growing problem for French fishermen. Canada and Mexico have been exporting more fish to France in recent years, causing a shortage for the French seafood industry. To combat the decline, Paris has requested that the United States temporarily suspend the import of fish from Canadian and Mexican boats. This week, Britain’s highest court ruled that it’s okay for Jersey farmers to sell their so-called “Jersey fish” to French consumers, despite their being caught in British waters. The ruling is enormously significant to the island’s economy, which is dependent on the fishing industry. In fact, the island’s government is so dependent on the industry, it’s decided to sue the British government for damages due to Brexit.

Does Jersey have territorial waters?

Jersey’s coastline has been the subject of much debate in recent months, as France has demanded that the Channel Island’s territorial waters be extended. Over the last few years, a number of media outlets have reported on France’s claims of territorial waters around the U.K.’s Crown Dependency, Jersey.

Is Jersey in UK waters?

The UK Royal Navy has had a longstanding dispute over the waters around the Channel Islands (i.e. Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, etc.). The dispute goes back to the 17th century and is based on historical claims to the islands by the UK and France. The UK does actually own the environment around the islands, however—a fact which has been used by MPs to demand fishing quotas from the French. This argument is ongoing because the UK says the islands are in British waters, whereas the French and EU say they are in their waters. The Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey are not part of the United Kingdom and they are located between the UK and France. They have been disputed territories between the UK and France since the early sixteenth century, but the future of the islands remains unresolved. It is still not clear what will happen to the Channel Islands after Brexit is finalized. Will the British government be able to prevent the French from seizing control of the Channel Islands?


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