The British government has hit back at French threats to cut Jersey’s energy supply over a fishing dispute as the island prepared for an imminent blockade of its main port, a development last seen in the 1990s when the Royal Navy was forced to intervene.
The crown dependency is preparing to activate emergency plans in response to threats from France including comments by its minister for maritime affairs, Annick Girardin, in which she had warned of retaliation over a lack of access to UK waters for the country’s fishing fleet.
A UK government spokesman described the intervention from Paris as “unacceptable and disproportionate”.
Jersey’s external relations minister, Senator Ian Gorst, said the threat to the island’s energy supply, made by the French minister in the national assembly on Tuesday, was grave but that a more imminent danger was a blockade by fishing boats of St Helier, the main entry point for goods and supplies.
“That is very possible. They have done so with our sister channel island [Guernsey] in the past, in the 90s, so we are preparing for our eventuality. It may even be as soon as tomorrow,” he said. “We have got contingency emergency committees that are preparing for that eventuality. It would potentially prevent cargo tomorrow.
“Frustrations are running very high,” Gorst added.
The maritime row has been triggered by changes wrought by Brexit to the fishing rights of UK and EU fleet. On Tuesday, Girardin had said she was “revolted” by the lack of access given to French boats that had operated for decades in Jersey’s waters. She had claimed Paris was ready to retaliate, warning that the Channel island relied on “the transmission of electricity by underwater cables” from France.
The UK government responded forcefully on Wednesday, claiming the threats fitted a pattern of behaviour by the EU and its member states since the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January.
“To threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate,” a UK government spokesman said. “We are working closely with the EU and Jersey on fisheries access provisions following the end of the transition period so trust the French will use the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems.”
A UK government source noted that the threat to Jersey’s energy supply followed the invocation of article 16 to establish a vaccine border on the island of Ireland, warnings of a block on exports to the UK and the recent suggestion from France’s EU affairs minister that the City of London would suffer if the British government reneged on its commitments on fishing.
“Comments such as these are surprising and disappointing, especially from a close neighbour,” the UK official said. “This is just the latest example of the EU issuing threats as a first resort at any sign of difficulty. They should be using the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems; that is exactly what it is there for.”
Gorst said that cutting Jersey’s energy supply, 95% of which comes from France, would force the island to refire an oil power station, scuppering its green targets. But he added that he believed that France would only be able to act on the threat in 2026, at the end of a current agreement between the EU and the UK on energy supply contained within the free trade deal struck on Christmas eve.
“It is not the first time [cutting energy] has been mooted to us but the energy deal is a commercial contract between EDF and Jersey Electricity Company. We have got three undersea cables but we are able in extremis to produce our electricity through a power station here in Jersey, but it is just not as green or as cheap,” he said.
Gorst said he had held talks on Wednesday with George Eustice, the environment secretary, over a plan to defuse the situation.
The cause of the tension has been the demand from Jersey for evidence from French fishing vessels that they have historically fished in its waters, a condition contained within the EU-UK trade deal for the continuation of their activity.
Jersey published on Friday a list of licences issued for 41 French boats over 12 metres that had met the requirement that they had fished in Jersey waters for at least 10 days over a period of 12 months in the past three years.
But 17 boats have not been given licences and the French government has claimed that unfair conditions had also been set on those who been offered access.
Gorst said: “We are putting together a plan which we hope will provide extra time for the French boats that it has now become apparent didn’t provide sufficient evidence to prove their historical fishing in our waters … It would allow them to continue to operate while they provide that evidence.”
UK government sources, mindful of how quickly the post-Brexit dispute over Northern Ireland blew up, said attempts were being made to resolve the dispute before it worsened.
Jersey Electricity moved on Wednesday to reassure customers that it had backup in the “unlikely event” that France cut supplies.