LONDON – The UK and France were in a naval stalemate on Thursday as a long-standing dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights escalated in the Channel.
France has deployed two maritime patrol boats in the waters off the British island of Jersey, its navy said, after the British navy sent two of its own ships to the region on Wednesday evening.
The dueling moves took place as a flotilla of French fishing trawlers sailed to the Jersey port of Saint Helier to protest the fishing rights.
The French government has suggested it could cut off the island’s power supply if its fishermen are not granted full access to UK fishing waters on post-Brexit trade terms.
Clément Beaune, the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, told AFP on Thursday that Paris would “not be intimidated” by the British.
Across the Channel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged his “unwavering support” to the island after speaking to Jersey officials about the prospect of a French blockade.
Johnson “stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation of tensions,” a government spokesperson said. “As a precaution, the UK will send two offshore patrol vessels to monitor the situation.”
But some opponents have accused Johnson 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.”
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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.
Jersey officials said they would meet with representatives of the protesters to hear their concerns.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.