A few months ago, I wrote about how absurd it was for British politicians and commentators to be squeamish about the prospect of deploying Royal Navy ships to protect British fishing waters.
Not only were the vessels most likely to be deployed not even armed, but it is perfectly legitimate for the UK to uphold international law – and protect our fishing communities – rather than give way to the spirit of belligerent entitlement that seems to animate the French trawler fleet.
Of course, 2021 seems set on one-upping 2020 and so here we are, five months on, and the gunboats really are gunboats. According to media reports both HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, the ships deployed to Jersey today, are armed.
Their mission is to prevent a rumoured attempted to blockade St Helier, the capital of Jersey, by French fishermen, who massed their boats outside it this morning.
But hot-headedness on the part of private citizens is one thing. The support they have received from the French Government, on the other hand, is truly extraordinary.
Paris has reportedly threatened to cut off electricity supplies to the Crown Dependency if the demands of its fishermen are not met. British ministers allege that their French counterparts are refusing to talk to them to try and defuse the situation.
Unfortunately, the reflex to try and blame both sides remains, even in the Times’ sober analysis:
“The real cause for concern is the way in which politicians have tried to capitalise on the row. The French moved first, with a threat to cut Jersey’s electricity from France, but Britain seems equally happy to engage, deploying two navy gunboats.”
It ought to go without saying that sending the Navy to do its job and prevent hostile action against St Helier is not remotely comparable to threatening to inflict blackouts on a neighbour in order to strongarm them in negotiations.
Fortunately, for all its faults, this Government is unlikely to be deterred by such sentiments. But a willingness to deploy ships on fisheries protection missions is surely the bare minimum.
After all, even if Jersey does find an amicable resolution to this dispute over fishing licences, it seems very likely that Emmanuel Macron’s government will seek out more opportunities to strike nationalist postures against Britain as he gears up for a tough re-election battle against Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National.
Moreover, the deal which mandates France to protect cross-channel electricity supplies to the Channel Islands and the UK expires in 2026 – the same year as the post-EU deal on fishing.
If the Government is serious about being able to hold its own in such disputes in the future, therefore, some strategic investment seems to be in order. First, to expand the woefully-shrunken fisheries-protection fleet. Second, to offer a failsafe so that Jersey and the other Crown Dependencies can be supplied with electricity from the mainland in the event that France threatens to turn the lights off again.
This latter might seem like an overreaction. But a threat once made can’t be unmade, and Paris has demonstrated that it is prepared to use its influence over Jersey’s power supplies as a bargaining chip. So long as this dependency continues, the islanders will live in the shadow of the Élysée. No pun intended.
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