LONDON — The U.K. and France were engaged in a naval standoff on Thursday as a long-simmering dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights escalated in the English Channel.
France deployed two maritime patrol boats to the waters off the British Channel island of Jersey, its navy said, after the British Navy dispatched two of its own vessels to the area late Wednesday.
The dueling moves came as a flotilla of French fishing trawlers sailed to the Jersey port of St. Helier to protest over fishing rights.
The French government has suggested it could cut power supplies to the island if its fishermen are not granted full access to U.K. fishing waters under post-Brexit trading terms.
Clément Beaune, the French secretary of state for European affairs, told AFP on Thursday that Paris will “not be intimidated” by the British.
On the other side of the Channel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged his “unwavering support” for the island after he spoke with Jersey officials about the prospect of a French blockade.
Johnson “stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions,” a government spokesperson said. “As a precautionary measure the U.K. will be sending two Offshore Patrol Vessels to monitor the situation.”
But some opponents accused Johnson of escalating the crisis and using the feud to score political points at a crucial moment domestically. The story dominated newspaper front pages on Thursday, as voters headed to the polls in key local and regional elections across England, Scotland and Wales.
Several British newspapers featured large front page headlines declaring “Boris sends gunboats to defend Jersey” and similar. The online version of the Daily Mail also tweeted out a comparison of the sizes of the British and French ships, boasting that the French had sent a patrol vessel “that’s less than HALF the size of two Royal Navy warships.”
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Dimitri Rogoff, who heads a group of Normandy fishermen, told the Associated Press that about 50 boats joined Thursday morning’s protest from French ports along the western Normandy coast.
He said the action was not an attempt to blockade the port but rather a peaceful method of voicing French anger.
“This isn’t 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 Britain. It sits just 14 miles off the French coast and receives most of its electricity from France via undersea cables.
Jersey’s government said the island had issued new fishing permits in accordance with the post-Brexit trade terms, which included new conditions for license-holders. According to an agreement with the E.U., French boat operators must now show a history of fishing in the area to receive a license to fish in Jersey’s waters.
That angered French trawler crews and the French government, who said the new terms had been imposed unilaterally and without discussion, and that they placed unfair restrictions on French fishing vessels.
Jersey officials said they would meet representatives of the protesters to listen to their concerns.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed.