A problem requiring a ‘pragmatic approach’

In June 2016, Islanders awoke to the news that few probably anticipated – the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar QC Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31335004)
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar QC Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31335004)

As Jersey was never in the EU or the UK, many Islanders may have initially thought Brexit would have merely been a matter of concern for our friends further north.

However, as the wider implications of the separation became clear, news of potential supply shortages from congested English ports and significantly increased bureaucracy when travelling into Europe began to hit this newspaper’s headlines.

But few would have anticipated the scale of the impact Brexit would have on fishing – not just for those in the local industry but also a large number of our Norman and Breton neighbours who operate in Jersey’s waters.

Tensions boiled over in May when a flotilla of French vessels, whose owners claimed they had been given the wrong type of post-Brexit fishing licences, travelled here en masse to protest in the shadow of two Royal Navy warships. They were scenes unlike anything Jersey had seen before.

Footage of the incident was beamed across the world with the Pentagon urging Britain and France, as NATO allies, to resolve the issues through dialogue rather than using their military assets.

After spending a number of hours off St Helier the French vessels returned to their respective ports. In a tweet, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said: ‘I’m pleased that the situation in Jersey has been resolved. Thank you to the @RoyalNavy for their swift response. The UK will always stand resolutely by the people of Jersey.’

However, the situation was – and remains – far from resolved. Following the demonstration, Jersey’s government agreed to extend the grace period in which French fishermen could submit the relevant data to obtain the correct licence and fish in the Island’s waters virtually restriction-free.

French fishing fishermen trawler protest blockade fisheries fish Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31339324)

This is now a period that has been extended on two subsequent occasions, with one Jersey skipper warning that their Norman and Breton counterparts would bring ‘Armageddon’ to the Island if the last deadline was implemented and the respective licence conditions enforced for French boats.

Lord David Wolfson, the UK’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, conducted a diplomatic visit to the Island on Thursday where he met Chief Minister John Le Fondré and External Relations Minister Ian Gorst.

During his stay, Lord Wolfson was given a tour of the Island by the Lieutenant-Governor, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, travelled to the Ecréhous, accompanied by Senator Le Fondré, on board the fisheries vessel Norman Le Brocq and visited the vaccination centre at Fort Regent.

However, speaking in the manicured gardens of Government House, the Westminster politician said the matter of issuing licences was a matter for Jersey’s government and was unable to give any timeframe as to when issues may be resolved.

He said: ‘I am not going to put a timescale on it. That is not because I want to dodge the question but the question of issuing licences is not a matter for the UK government. It is a matter for the Jersey government.

‘How long it takes is not something I want to put a timescale on because it is not my gift and it would be wrong for me to put a timescale on it.’

He added: ‘I think it would have been naive of anybody to think that you could have an agreement as large and important as the Trade and Co-operation Agreement signed on a Monday and have everything implemented on the Tuesday. All these agreements take time to bed down and apply in practice.’

Although the crisis has been at the forefront of many States Members’ and civil servants’ minds, who or what exactly is causing it has, for many Islanders, remained unclear.

However, one possibility was revealed by Home Affairs Minister Gregory Guida, who suggested that French fishing vessels were submitting the correct data for their fishing licences but this was being withheld by French officials – possibly in a move to pit their fishermen against Jersey and the UK.

St Helier harbour. French fishermen blockade the entrance to the harbour over post-Brexit access to Jersey waters. Condor's Commodore Goodwill was prevented from leaving port. ..Following the blockade talks took place between French fishermen representative on the Normandy Trader and Deputy Gregory Guida (St Lawrence) (black life jacket with orange piping) aboard the Jersey fisheries protection vessel, Norman Le Brocq Picture: ROB CURRIE. (31341879)

When asked about the cause of the dispute Lord Wolfson said it would not be within his jurisdiction to comment on the matter.

‘I am not sure it is for me as a UK government minister to get involved in that part of the detail because it is important to remember that Jersey is not part of the UK, although we have a very close relationship. The Jersey government is an independent government and what it is doing is applying the agreement to the facts on the ground.

‘It will not be unusual to you from any walk of life that when you go through that process sometimes somebody will say, “well I have submitted all the right papers. Why have I not got the right licence?” whereas the other side will say, “well you have not submitted all the right papers”. It is a practical issue. It requires a pragmatic approach, which is the one being taken and that is why I am confident it will be resolved,’ he said.

‘I think you can tell that is the approach being taken by the way in which that time period has been rolled forward to ensure that there is enough time for people to provide the right documentation and if the right documentation is provided then the right licences will be given.’

With two extensions to the licence-data grace period, many Islanders may argue that the approach taken by Jersey’s government is simply not working and that ministers have kicked the can down the road for long enough.

Asked whether it was time for a change in tack, Lord Wolfson said: ‘I am not sure I would agree and say it is not working. It is working but it has not been finally resolved. There is a process and what we are now doing is that we are in the middle of the process and it is taking a bit of time – that is not entirely surprising – but I am confident we will get there.’

There have also been threats from the French Minister of the Sea, Annick Girardin, to cut off the Island’s electricity supply from the French grid if the dispute is not resolved. She has also called for her government to lobby Brussels and invoke a clause within the Brexit agreement which would see Jersey excluded and the new fishing licence regime nullified.

French fishing fishermen trawler protest blockade fisheries fish HMS Tamar Picture: JON GUEGAN. (31339334)

Asked whether there was a possibility of this happening, Lord Wolfson simply said: ‘I do not think there is a risk of that happening.’

During the peak of tensions between Jersey and France, politicians from the Normandy and La Manche region implemented an official ban on commercial vessels using their ports – all of which are normally used as gateways for Jersey fishermen into the European market.

With Islanders having no say in the Brexit vote and with Jersey never being part of the UK or EU, Lord Wolfson was asked whether the UK would ever commit to providing monetary assistance to Jersey fishermen if their activities were disrupted again.

In response, he said: ‘To come back to the basic constitutional arrangements, Jersey has an independent government. It is not part of the UK. I meet with and discuss matters with the Chief Minister and the other ministers here on a very frequent basis.

‘Whatever issues they want to raise are raised and we can discuss. I can raise issues as well – it is a relationship which I really value. That sort of issue would be a matter for that relationship.’

When pressed on whether he would commit to providing compensation, he added: ‘It is not something which I think is best discussed in an interview. Anything raised by the Jersey government is looked at and discussed.

‘The main point is that I hope this is an issue related to the implementation of the agreement. That is the main message I want to give out.’

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