LONDON – A flotilla of French trawlers who had gathered in the English Channel in a long dispute with the UK over fishing rights has left the area, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday evening, apparently ending the navy. stalemate between the two countries.
French fishermen had sailed to a port on the British island of Jersey to protest against post-Brexit fishing rights. Tensions escalated when France deployed two maritime patrol boats to the waters, its navy said, after the British navy sent two of its own ships to the region on Wednesday evening.
But with the French sailors having left the port, Johnson tweeted that “the situation in Jersey has been resolved” and pledged that the UK “will always stand resolutely on the side of the people of Jersey”.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement the UK remains “on hold” in case officials in Jersey ask for help again.
The apparent conclusion of the stalemate – at least for now – ends a growing crisis: the French government had previously suggested it could cut off the island’s power supply if its fishermen were not granted access complete to UK fishing waters under post-Brexit trade terms.
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Clément Beaune, the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, told AFP on Thursday that Paris “will not be intimidated” by the British.
Naval police boats Athos and Themis have been dispatched to the area to maintain order, a spokesperson for the French maritime authorities said.
Across the Channel, Johnson gave his “unequivocal support” to the island after speaking to Jersey officials about the prospect of a French blockade.
Johnson said the two navy ships would remain off Jersey as a “precautionary measure”.
But some opponents have accused Johnson, who led the campaign to get Britain out of the European Union, of escalating the crisis and of using the feud to score political points at a crucial national time.
The story dominated the front pages of newspapers on Thursday, as voters turned out to vote in the main local and regional elections in England, Scotland and Wales.
Several British newspapers made headlines stating “Boris sends gunboats to defend Jersey” and others. The online version of the Daily Mail also tweeted a comparison of the sizes of British and French ships, boasting that the French had sent a patrol vessel “which is less than half the size of two Royal Navy warships.”
Dimitri Rogoff, who heads a group of Norman fishermen, told The Associated Press that around 50 boats joined Thursday morning’s protest from French ports along Normandy’s west coast.
He said the action was not an attempt to blockade the port but rather a peaceful method of expressing French anger.
“It is not an act of war,” Rogoff said. “It’s an act of protest.”
Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands with a population of 108,000, is geographically closer to France than to Great Britain. It lies just 14 miles off the French coast and receives most of its electricity from France via submarine cables.
The Jersey government said the island had issued new fishing licenses under post-Brexit trade terms, which included new conditions for license holders. According to an agreement with the EU, French boat operators must now show a history of fishing in the area to receive a license to fish in Jersey waters.
This angered French trawler crews and the French government, who said the new conditions had been imposed unilaterally and without discussion, and imposed unfair restrictions on French fishing vessels.
The EU appeared to support France in the dispute, saying that until new justifications have been provided by Britain, Jersey officials should not attach new conditions to the issuance of the licenses.
“Full compliance with the TCA (Brexit Trade Agreement) is essential in this process,” said European Commission spokesperson Vivian Loonela.
Jersey officials said they would meet with representatives of the protesters to hear their concerns.
Reuters, The Associated Press and Erik Ortiz contributed.