Let us turn the fisheries fiasco into a new era in our friendship with France

Comment from Chris Bright

French Fishing boats Blockade Jersey Harbour regards new licensing from the Government of Jersey..Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (30842838)
French Fishing boats Blockade Jersey Harbour regards new licensing from the Government of Jersey..Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (30842838)

With energy and imagination, the strong regional connections between Jersey, Guernsey, Normandy and Brittany can be returned to the post Brexit settlement in ways which will enhance rather than diminish the social, cultural and economic opportunities they offer

IT is widely accepted as historical fact that Jerseymen, being citizens and soldiers of Normandy, fought with William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066.

What’s more, it is also said that if the triumphant Duke were to time-travel forward 1,000 years and turn up in Jersey today, he would be able to converse fairly freely in Jèrriais, the Norman-French dialect that still occupies such a proud place among the characteristics which reflect its unique cross-cultural heritage.

While pondering that scenario, wander to the edge of the Island on a clear day and look to the north-east. That stuff on the horizon is not a mirage, it’s Normandy.

Of Jersey’s 12 parishes, 11 are happily twinned with towns in that ancient bucolic region and, topically, the liberation of the Channel Islands, just celebrated again with such imperishable emotion, began not in May 1945 but on 6 June 1944 with the first Allied boot on its beaches.

We share a geographical territory as well as many centuries of character-building history and, with trade and culture missions long established in each other’s towns and francophone associations flourishing on this side of the water, there should be no doubt that Jersey and Normandy have a special relationship indeed.

That welcome reality makes last week’s bad-tempered maritime spectacle in St Helier Harbour, as well as the damaging ripples still spreading from it, all the more regrettable and concerning. The long historical background also adds some extra dimensions to the puzzling problems left behind but, with luck and good will, may also help to resolve them.

How did relations deteriorate so rapidly to the point at which French fishing boats blockaded St Helier, threats and insults were exchanged, livelihoods and family tradition on both sides came under threat, where they remain, and as if things weren’t bad enough already the Royal Navy was despatched to loiter off Jersey’s coast like a menacing bouncer outside a night club?

Boris Johnson’s absurd display of jingoistic posturing, with its echoes of the old British Empire instinct to send a gunboat when unruly foreigners failed to fall gratefully into line, certainly did nothing to cool tempers or help resolve the situation. On the contrary, it probably served only to escalate a bureaucratic nuisance into a spiralling international dispute, not to mention an embarrassment to ships’ crews who probably had better things to do with their time than humour the Prime Minister’s Churchillian fantasies.

Above all it demonstrated that Jersey, unless it can raise its own political game dramatically, could now pay the price for failing to assert itself strongly enough during the process of Brexit debate and negotiation.

As that saga trundled on, some were first surprised and then disappointed by the eloquent silence radiating from the Council of Ministers on the question of Jersey’s future relations with EU countries in general and in particular with France which, it bears repeating, we can actually see from here.

What crumbs of information did fall from the top table seemed to be primarily aimed at reassuring the offshore finance industry that its interests had been relayed to a broadly sympathetic UK government which, barring a conflict of interest, would keep them in mind while haggling over its divorce deals with the European Union. But the finance industry is not Jersey. Where was the equivalent reassurance for the ordinary citizen? What would be the implications of Brexit for the thousands of Islanders for whom the ferry route to St Malo has been a routine and important life-enhancing link? Would it turn into a bureaucratic obstacle course instead, or could that be avoided by some special understanding reached on the basis of proximity and good neighbourliness? What about those with property to maintain in Normandy, Brittany or further into France? Or with family in Madeira, another EU enclave with which Jersey enjoys a close relationship? And what were our political representatives doing to protect the future for the non-finance elements of the Island economy, for tourism, for agriculture and (now we know) for fisheries?

In fairness, the complexities of Jersey’s relationship with the United Kingdom and its traditional responsibility for the Island’s defence and international relations must have muddied the already murky waters considerably. Things have changed enormously in recent years, however, with Jersey increasingly empowered to strike its own international agreements, to act independently and to manage wider responsibilities such as the obvious case in point, the licensing of fishing vessels to operate in its waters.

If Jersey could be trusted to do that, it might be thought, it could also be trusted to introduce such a system with due efficiency and to rely on its special relationship with the next-door neighbours to overcome any concerns and misunderstandings. The current standoff over the licensing rules for French fishers looks rather like a problem that might have been more easily solved over a three-hour lunch (or possibly two, home and away) than by overbearing military ‘help’ from Downing Street.

Jersey has a good number of French-speaking politicians, including Chief Minister John Le Fondré. In his recently published memoirs, one of his similarly fluent predecessors, Pierre Horsfall, recounts an example of how effective the personal touch can be. A quarter of a century ago, during a protracted and frosty renegotiation of the Granville Bay Agreement, he won over a French delegation by singing a nursery rhyme in Breton in the splendour of their Quai d’Orsay chambers.

Unconventional but effective, it cut through a diplomatic knot by simply demonstrating kinship and local knowledge. The Assemblée Parlementaire de la Francophonie, to which the States of Jersey still belongs, in due course enrolled Senator Horsfall as a Grand Officier de la Pléiade, with a citation that included gratitude for ‘his knowledge of French and of French people that has allowed these negotiations to succeed without ever placing in peril the cordiality, co-operation and mutual respect that exists between Jersey and France’.

It is a small anecdote that nevertheless speaks volumes about Jersey’s constitutional and cultural peculiarities and the ways in which, properly recognised, they might underpin the creation of a more confident future. Pierre Horsfall’s successors should now be resolved to make those noble words ring true again, regardless of how things may stand between London and Paris.

The current unpleasant predicament is a direct result of Brexit, in which Jersey voters, rightly unrepresented at Westminster, had no say whatsoever. That irony is compounded by the reflection that, for the half century or so of the UK’s membership of the EU, Jersey happily enjoyed something like the best of both worlds as a relatively insignificant ‘third country’ under the terms of the Treaty of Rome. Now that the whole of Britain has that same designation, with Jersey meanwhile attracting steadily more hostile international attention for farming money than it ever did for farming potatoes, we have the worst of both worlds instead and the stage is set for more confrontations like last week’s fishing furore, with the Channel Islands used as a pawn in the political power games of bigger players.

Rightly or wrongly, the Council of Ministers has so far given the impression that its idea of promoting the Island’s post-Brexit interests is to keep its head down, think of the finance industry and wait for London to tell it how high to jump. That may have been the course previously suggested by the realpolitik of a complex situation but if the incident of the French fishing armada has clarified anything it is the unsustainability of such a policy.

External Relations Minister Ian Gorst has periodically stressed the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with the UK. He is absolutely right, of course, but the time has clearly come for equivalent effort to be put into nurturing relations with France that take fuller account of our shared history and geography and can be tailored over time to continuing mutual advantage.

Sentiment should be convincing enough to encourage such a reconciliation but, failing that, the prospect of continuing bad blood between first cousins jeopardising not only the Jersey fleet’s vital French markets but also the Island’s electricity supply (a far-fetched but powerfully symbolic threat) and even access to European financial markets should be enough to focus the minds of politicians and others with a leading role to play in resetting the friendship.

One of the most distinctive voices in last week’s turmoil was that of oyster farmer Chris Le Masurier, who lined up alongside the French invaders and publicly sympathised with their anger at the way they were dealt with by the Jersey authorities. Ministers in turn have acknowledged that the new rules, designed to protect our marine environment and sustain fish stocks for future generations as well as this one, could have been communicated more clearly and, only a year or so too late, have now redeployed fluent French speakers to the job.

The occasional outbreak of ill will, up to and including piracy, siege warfare and the last land battle on British soil, has punctuated the passing centuries but far longer has been spent rubbing along in a harmonious co-existence which it is in everyone’s interests to restore. No one came out of last week’s initial skirmishes very well, from the wrong-footed Council of Ministers to the Corporal Jones impersonator with the musket at Elizabeth Castle, or from the truculent fishermen themselves to the grandstanding UK government who spotted a headline-grabbing, flag-waving opportunity on the very eve of important regional elections.

By further coincidence, the drama unfolded just before Liberation Day, when Channel Islanders are particularly conscious of their history, privileges and place in the world. A few days later, a major public consultation was launched with the aim of articulating and promoting the elusive quality of Island identity for the unifying benefit of everyone who, to borrow that memorable phrase from the Liberation Day speech of the Bailiff, Timothy Le Cocq, holds Jersey in their heart.

The political dimension of this wide-ranging consultation concerns the question of Jersey’s international personality and how it is viewed by the rest of the modern world. Implicit in the very fact of such a question being asked is a growing belief that this extraordinarily talented, dynamic and distinctive small nation deserves to be less automatically associated with finance centre activities and, simultaneously, less widely expected to trail along in the UK’s wake.

The current storm in Jersey waters offers an early test of our ability to assert a strong and more independent regional identity. Given that the new fisheries licensing scheme has critical environmental as well as economic aims, there can be no question of a free-for-all but it is time for a more conciliatory phase of discussions about how to share with France in which Jersey, with its superior local knowledge, rather than London takes the leading role.

Let England and France rattle their Brexit sabres at each other if they wish. Brexit was none of Jersey’s doing, we do not have to join in and we certainly should not allow this Crown Dependency, peculiar relic of the old Dukes of Normandy who also became Kings of England, to be piggy in the middle again.

As so often, the clue is in the name: Les Iles Anglo-Normandes. With energy and imagination, the strong regional connections between Jersey, Guernsey, Normandy and Brittany can be retuned to the post-Brexit settlement in ways which will enhance rather than diminish the social, cultural and economic opportunities they offer.

If last week’s dramatic events, dubbed by some the War of the Whelks, can serve as a prompt to forward-thinking neighbours in all of those jurisdictions to start talking about workable local agreements on much more than just fish, then the long-term gain will have been worth the short-term rift in Jersey’s own long-established entente cordiale.

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