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UK to increase diplomatic efforts with France over Brexit fishing rights

Prime minister Boris Johnson (right) and French president Emmanuel Macron watch a flypast of the Red Arrows and their French equivalent, La Patrouille de France from Horse Guards Parade in London during his visit to the UK - Credit: PA

Diplomatic efforts with France will be stepped up to prevent a repeat of the Jersey fishing dispute.

The Royal Navy will continue to keep a watch on events but the two vessels deployed to the Channel Island were ordered back to port after the French protest ended.

The UK government will now work with France and Jersey to resolve the dispute before it escalates further.

About 60 French boats took part in the protest around Jersey’s main port, St Helier, in a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights, before subsequently returning to port on Thursday.

The authorities in Jersey have promised further talks to help resolve the row, but the French government hit out at a “British failure” to abide by the terms of the UK-EU trade deal and warned it would “use all the leverage at our disposal” to protect the fishing industry.

The European Union also accused Jersey of breaching the deal signed by the UK and Brussels.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick said efforts would be made to resolve the dispute with Emmanuel Macron’s government and the EU.

“What we have done is make very clear to the French ministers who said some very unwise and disproportionate comments that we will stand with the people of Jersey,” the Cabinet minister said.

“This issue now needs to be resolved by diplomacy, by the chief minister and the ministers of Jersey – with the support of the UK Government – working with their counterparts in France and the European Union.”

He told BBC’s Question Time the agreement allows Jersey to regulate fishing within its waters and to have a licensing agreement.

“There seems to be some disagreement about the precise details of that, that now needs to be worked through in the usual way,” he said.

“Ministers have spoken with their counterparts in the French government.”

“We are going to ensure that this is sorted out as quickly as possible,” Jenrick said.

Brexit minister Lord Frost spoke to the French government on Thursday.

During a day of drama in the waters around the Channel Island, French vessels gathered to protest against the new licences they have been required to obtain from the Jersey government to carry on operating.

HMS Severn and HMS Tamar were deployed in response to fears the French boats could blockade St Helier, while the French maritime authority for the Channel sent two police vessels to the area “to ensure the protection of human life at sea”.

Local fishermen reported flares were let off and that some boats entered the harbour for about an hour, with footage posted online apparently showing a French boat ramming the rear of a Jersey vessel.

The protest leaders denied they were seeking to impose a blockade and the flotilla eventually headed back to France.

Jersey’s chief minister John Le Fondre said: “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.”

The row erupted after the Jersey government said French boats would be required to obtain licences to carry on fishing in the island’s waters under the terms of the trade deal with the EU, which came into force last Friday.

The move provoked a wave of anger among French fishing communities, which complained that boats which had operated there for years were suddenly having their access restricted, because they could not prove their historical links with the waters.

A spokesman for the French ministry for Europe and foreign affairs 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.

“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.”

Earlier this week, French maritime minister Annick Girardin said Paris would cut off electricity to Jersey – which gets 95% of its power supply from France – if the dispute was not resolved.

In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the European Commission said “additional conditions” attached to the new licences represented a breach of the trade deal.

She said they had “indicated to the UK that we see that the provisions of the EU/UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, that we recently agreed, have not been met there, have not been respected”.

Former Commons speaker John Bercow condemned Boris Johnson’s “absurd act of gunboat diplomacy” on the day of crucial elections in Great Britain.

“It’s a bit of jingoistic sabre rattling,” he told Question Time.

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