France and Britain Are Having a Dick-Measuring Contest in the English Channel

British and French ships are facing off over fishing rights around the island of Jersey, and obviously Brexit is to blame.
May 6, 2021, 2:29pm
British Navy ship the HMS Tamar is deployed as French fishing boats sail into harbour to protest against new fishing licenses on the 6th of May 6, 2021 in St Helier, Jersey. Photo: Gary Grimshaw/Getty Images

A tiny island in the English channel has somehow become the frontline in a confrontation between the nuclear-armed powers of the United Kingdom and France.

In the past 24 hours two British Navy ships, the HMS Severn and HMS Tamar, have faced off with two French patrol vessels in the waters around St Helier, the capital of Jersey, after French authorities threatened to disconnect the island’s electrical supplies, and French fishers said they would blockade the port.

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The drumbeat for war on both sides is, if not quite deafening, at least as annoying as mild tinnitus.

So what’s going on? Are people about to dust off their muskets and tricorn hats to march on Paris? Read on to find out.


What even is Jersey?

The island of Jersey, after which the US state is named, is a self-governing dependency of the British crown. What that means in effect is that Jersey, like the other crown dependencies of Guernsey and the Isle of Man, is not technically part of the United Kingdom but not an independent sovereign state either, even though it has its own legislature. About 100,000 people live in Jersey, which is just off the coast of north-west France.

So, er, why are Britain and France sending gunships there?

At the heart of the dispute is – you guessed it – fish.

For the last 200 years (albeit with numerous revisions since), fishing rights around the Channel Islands were governed by an agreement known as the Bay of Granville Treaty, which sets out rules around who is allowed to fish, how much each vessel is allowed to catch, and so on.

The treaty expired at the end of last year following the end of the Brexit transition period, during which the UK was still subject to European Union rules, and last week the government of Jersey introduced a new licensing regime for French boats.

The problem, according to the French fishers, is that the new licences are much more restrictive than under the previous regime, with the number of fishing days for many fishers having been reduced with other punitive conditions imposed too. Hence the decision for this rather dramatic protest.

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Of course it’s something to do with Brexit.

Yep. Throughout the exit negotiations, fishing was a constant sore spot between Britain and the EU. Despite the UK’s fishing industry being smaller than our videogames industry, it holds an oversized cultural importance. The same is true for France, so politicians on both sides do not want to be perceived to be conceding anything on fishing.

In fact, when the post-Brexit trade deal was negotiated down to the wire at the end of last year, fishing was one of the last issues to be resolved. In the end, the final fishing agreement was pretty complex, and had both sides agreeing to still allow EU fishing fleets to visit British waters. But the balance shifted more towards British fishers, with Britain free to ban all EU fishing vessels from 2026. The agreement also commits both sides to renegotiating quotas each year.

So the good news for fans of naval drama is that it’s possible we could see similar scenes to what is happening in Jersey happen again in the future too.

Is Britain the only side being very silly about this, or is France at it too?

It’s very tempting to assume that Britain is simply being ridiculous about this, especially if you judge by the coverage in typically level-headed UK newspapers. Similarly, one British government official reportedly said that French President Macron has “small dick energy”.

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But France is sabre-rattling too. The French maritime minister Annick Girardin has spoken about how she is the daughter of a fisherman, and has a “pirate’s soul”.

What’s the point in all of this? Would we ever really go to war over fish?

You might think not, but weirdly, it sort of has happened before. In the 20th century, Britain became embroiled in a number of international disputes over fishing rights with that most dastardly of adversaries, Iceland.

The conflict peaked in the 1970s in the so-called Cod Wars, which saw the Royal Navy deploying dozens of ships to protect the British fishing fleet, while jets were even flown over the North Sea to spot Icelandic vessels. There were also direct confrontations between ships, with projectiles thrown and barbs traded, with the British fishing fleet even playing “Rule Britannia” over the radio.

There was even an actual casualty of war: During one fracas, an Icelandic engineer was killed after being electrocuted while welding. 

Whether or not you could really characterise this as a “war” is a matter for dispute though, and is something that international relations scholars have long argued about because the Cod Wars appear to break the closest thing the field has to an iron law: That democracies do not go to war with each other. This is also another reason why the blockade of St Helier isn’t exactly the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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So what you’re saying is there’s no real of, like, an actual, real war?

Not really, no.

The good news is that unless something goes very wrong, the guns will remain silent. This gunboat diplomacy is almost entirely a dick-measuring contest and a show of strength.

But there is still scope for further escalation. Pirate-souled Girardin has threatened that a next step could be to cut off Jersey’s power, as the island relies on France for 90 percent of its electricity.

This would be a truly dramatic move for one of Britain’s democratic allies to make as it would actively risk harming the actual residents of Jersey. If this were to happen, this would definitely be the moment that focuses the minds of British and French politicians to resolve the dispute.

Ultimately though, however expedient it may be to have this row for domestic political reasons, it’s still within the interests of both Britain and France to resolve it quickly as given COVID, Russia, China and countless other issues both countries care about, there are much bigger fish to fry elsewhere.