Gunboats at the ready

Rough seas off the Jersey coast. Photo courtesy of Leon Cowley

I wrote this as an overview for my non-Jersey friends on Facebook, as I thought that the morning headlines of gunboats being dispatched to St Helier might have surprised and alarmed them, happening (as it appeared to) out of the blue.

Firstly, it is important to know that Jersey and the other Channel Islands are not part of the UK and have never been part of the EU. In one of those points of irony that are too neat to be fictitious, our relationship with the English Crown is through the Duchy of Normandy thanks to William the Conqueror, and of this duchy, only the Channel Islands remain. Consequently, we did not get a vote on Brexit, and this is all just fall-out. That covered, here we go.

Jersey and France had something called the Bay of Granville Treaty, covering rights to fish in Jersey and French waters (bearing in mind, we are only about 13 miles from France, so it’s all quite cosy).

When Brexit happened, because of constitutional relationships and agreement wording that I still do not completely understand, the Bay of Granville Treaty was nullified.

The UK government used some arcane law to claim rights to Channel Island waters as part of UK territorial waters, to use as a bargaining chip during negotiations with the EU. Truthfully, I had forgotten about this until today, because when this came up in the news, everyone here kicked off, because Jersey wanted the right to sort out its own deal with France, like before.

Ian Gorst, our External Affairs minister was like “no biggie, don’t worry, that’s against our constitution and ministers would have to vote to let them do this, so we don’t need to push-back on this, it’s only for the paperwork”, or words to that effect. Anyway, this was quickly forgotten by everyone, and Jersey got on with sorting out the new licensing system to replace the old treaty.

The licensing system was supposed to ensure that any French vessel which has historically fished our waters can still do so. Meanwhile, Jersey fishermen, who typically have smaller (and fewer) boats than the French, were like “we shouldn’t allow trawling here because they trawl in breeding areas and dredge the sea floor and we need to ensure sustainability”, which is a perfectly reasonable position given the general devastated state of the oceans. Unfortunately, there was also a strong and occasionally overt current of territorialism and “let’s take control of our waters”.

Then there are the French fishers, who:

  • have been fishing these waters for centuries;
  • in many cases have had their customary fishing grounds, preferred species and specialised equipment handed down through generations; and crucially,
  • are absolutely famous for their robust approach to conflict resolution;
  • blockaded their own harbour to prevent Jersey fishers landing their catch there.

This was very problematic for Jersey fishers, who have been fishing likewise for centuries and who offload up to 80 per cent of their catch there. Since I wrote this on Facebook on 6 May, this blockade has unfortunately now been made an official position. French fishers take more naturally to protest than paperwork, which is very relevant because everything right now revolves around paperwork. So, over the last few weeks, fishers on both sides have been working themselves up into righteous anger before Everything Changes Because Of Brexit.

Whoever was dealing with the licensing was like “OK Jersey fishers, I hear your concerns, and I saw Seaspiracy recently so I’m on board with this,” and added some restrictions with the new licences with regards to sustainable practices. These included restricting size of boats, restricting some sensitive areas (to everyone, not just to the French), and, perhaps most controversially, putting new limits on the number of days of fishing per year. They then proceeded to royally cock up by issuing the new licences on a Friday afternoon and leaving the out-of-office on for the long weekend, having not informed the French of any changes beforehand.

The sea from Archirondel Tower, St Catherine’s Bay. Photo courtesy of Leon Cowley

In addition, 17 French boats did not get their paperwork in (that is, their logs to prove that they were previously fishing these waters), and therefore have not yet received their licences. This probably wasn’t helped by the fact that apparently any paperwork was submitted to Normandy, who submitted it to French officials, who submitted it to UK officials, who sent it on to Jersey, a process that clearly has absolutely no room for error. Since writing this, I discovered that Brussels is also apparently in this conga line of bureaucracy, and Jersey and Normandy were expressly forbidden from talking to each other directly, which is always helpful (not!).

So now we get to this week. There are furious fishers on both sides (both of which, to be clear, have legitimate issues they want resolving), one of which is a group of people who have a strong culture of industrial action. So then, one of the French fishers was like “this is bloody outrageous, we control their electricity, we’re not taking this Brexit merde lying down.” This statement, whilst made by someone with no power to cut the electricity off, went down like a willy joke in a convent, and immediately hit the local news pages. Unfortunately, a French politician then picked up this idea and repeated it, which is way worse, because now it’s said by Someone In Government. So it’s proper news now, even though electricity provision is a commercial matter, not to mention a diplomatic nightmare, and this is not in any way a credible threat. The French fishers also decided to blockade a harbour, which, as mentioned, is something they do fairly regularly for various reasons, although not usually in St Helier.

Enter Johnson, a man whose ambition to follow in Churchill’s footsteps is long-recorded, and who has staked his career on Brexit. There’s an election in England on 6 May, see, and his party has been dogged by allegations of corruption for some time now. So what better way to seize the narrative than by sending in gunboats to ‘de-escalate’ the situation. Two gunboats, to be precise – which is two more than Churchill sent to the Channel Islands for the entirety of WWII, but let’s not get into that now. This has had the diplomatic effect of whistling ‘Yankee Doodle’ in a cowboy bar somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Remember that boring bit about constitutions and Brexit fishing negotiations that definitely wouldn’t ever be relevant, and we didn’t need to worry about? Well, the latest is that the European Commission has said that the new licensing system breaks the EU-UK treaty; a modern political miracle given that, as mentioned, Jersey is not part of either.

So that’s the story up to now. A constitutional crisis is brewing, which is exciting but also bad. It is a fundamentally human story, in that it resists easy categorisation and relies on a series of cockups and confusions. There are no heroic protagonists here, just hard-working fishers who happen to live on different coasts and who do a dangerous job in the same way that their ancestors have always done alongside each other; and very few actual villains (although anyone who knows me also knows my feelings on Boris Johnson). There is only wave upon wave of incompetence and bureaucracy, ruffled by the winds of aggressive nationalism.

The fish, we can only hope, are hiding in the restricted zones, because a storm is clearly coming. Meanwhile, in a boat somewhere between France and Jersey, the man tasked with sorting this out is Ian Gorst, the same man who assured us that the UK could not possibly lay claim to Jersey waters. Buoanne chance*, everyone.

*Jèrriais or Jersiais: a form of the Norman language spoken on Jersey. Ed