A French military ship and fishing boats protesting over post-Brexit fishing rights around Jersey have returned to France – but Royal Navy ships will remain, Boris Johnson said.
Boris Johnson sent the ships ahead of a fleet of about 50 French fishing boats descending on Jersey early on Thursday after they threatened to blockade the port of St Helier to prevent goods from being delivered.
The French fishing fleet returned to France after lunchtime following talks with Jersey authorities, as did Athos.
The French foreign ministry said the UK has breached its Brexit agreement with the EU over how fishing permits to access UK waters are being issued to French boats so it is "acting in a spirit of responsibility".
Paris earlier threatened to cut off power to the island – which receives 95% of its electricity from France through three undersea cables – and French fishermen said they would blockade the main port.
A French foreign ministry spokesman said: "We want the situation to be quickly unblocked through the full implementation of the trade and cooperation agreement, which provides for continued access to UK waters for fishermen who worked in these waters before Brexit.
"This is our only objective and we want to mobilise all the levers to preserve the fishing industry and allow it to continue its activities."
Downing Street confirmed Boris Johnson reiterated his "unequivocal support" of Jersey’s government in talks with its leaders.
The UK’s environment and food secretary George Eustice said the row was about 17 French fishing vessels that have failed to provide the data needed for Jersey to grant them a licence to fish in its waters.
Mr Eustice said the UK has been asking the European Commission for the data needed to complete the licence applications and will issue them "as soon as they have provided that data".
"I think the threat that was made is completely disproportionate and unacceptable," he said.
French maritime minister Annick Girardin said the authorisation of 41 boats to fish in Jersey waters had been accompanied by new demands "which were not arranged or discussed, and which we were not notified about".
The demands set out where ships could and could not go, how long fishermen can spend at sea, and what machinery they can use, she added.
An official from the French presidency said they did not want the situation to worsen.
France views the situation in Jersey as being calm, they said, but added that the UK’s language on the matter had aggravated tensions.
The European Commission said it is "engaging in good faith" with the UK as to how to solve the fishing dispute.
It said the terms of the EU-UK trade deal hammered out on Christmas Eve are not being met in waters off the coast of Jersey, due to "additional conditions" imposed on licences for French fishing boats there.
Stephanie Yon-Courtin, French MEP and EU fisheries committee member, told Sky News: "It’s a last resort threat, it’s necessary to see that we will act using all the tools we have in the agreement and much more than that.
"Everybody needs to understand that our fishermen need to be supported and need to work."
From about 1.30pm the vast majority of the French vessels started returning to France after talking to the Jersey government.
Don Thompson, president of Jersey Fishermen’s Association, said French fishermen had made their "point" during discussions with government officials.
"I don’t think they’ve received any promises, any commitments," he told Sky News.
He said the threat to cut power to the island had not materialised, "so we are not entirely under siege".
"In many parts of the world that would be seen as an act of war," he said.
He added: "We are still looking at what the demands are of the French fishermen. I just don’t think they are reasonable. So the situation’s not resolved."
Although crews on the French vessels were seen setting off flares after they arrived off the Jersey coast, the protest remained peaceful – apart from one instance of a UK boat being rammed by a French vessel.
The Commodore Goodwill freight ship was initially "trapped" and unable to leave the harbour this morning, but was later allowed to pass, according to the Jersey Evening Post.
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing described the scene at the port of St Helier as "like an invasion".
The 28-year-old said: "There were probably about 60 boats. There were a few hand-held flares and smoke flares going off and apparently a few maybe bangers and stuff going off from the French."
Jersey’s external affairs minister, Ian Gorst, said "tensions are running high" and the "precautionary" action by the Royal Navy "has so far worked".
He told Sky News: "We have had disproportionate threats emanating from Paris and a potential blockade of our main harbour – and those threats we take seriously to protect Jersey’s interests.
"We want to give French fisherman who can prove they have fished in our waters historically, the rights they had previously – but evidence has to be provided."
He said it has "become apparent" since the first licences were issued on Friday that not all the evidence needed was provided so they are helping fishermen to be able to do so.
Jersey fishermen had "found it bureaucratic to land their fish" in French waters, he added.
Jimmy Hersent, onboard the Monaco du Nord 2, told Sky News: "We went to Jersey to tell them that we want to work as we were before.
"A boat like mine is no longer allowed to trawl and I only have the right to come for 34 days in the year.
"[If this continues], what will happen is that the amount of fishing boats in the Bay of Granville [in France] will be too large and we will be on top of each other, and the resource there will be impacted."
Chief minister of Jersey, Senator John Le Fondre said Jersey government representatives were meeting the fishermen to hear their concerns and they will "ensure that lines of communication remained open and constructive".
Analysis: Downing Street is sending a strong message to France
By Alistair Bunkall, defence correspondent
Protecting UK fishing waters is one of the Royal Navy’s oldest tasks, but Downing Street’s decision to send two warships to the Channel Islands is a deliberate posture after France’s initial threat to cut off electricity to the islands.
HMS Tamar and HMS Severn are OPVs – Offshore Patrol Vessels. Despite the rather lowkey name, they are sophisticated ships, especially Tamar which only entered service in 2020 and is equipped with the latest radar, sonar and weaponry technology.
The Royal Navy provides its ships to the UK government (Defra) for a set number of days each year to assist in patrols of waters around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The devolved Scottish government has its own fleet.
The UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone is the fifth largest in the world, extending 200 miles from the coast. The Royal Navy’s role in UK waters is to prevent over-fishing by foreign vessels and to enforce quotas. This has long been controversial but Brexit has made it more so.
Sending OPVs to Channel Island waters is, in itself, not controversial, but people I spoke to in the MOD and Royal Navy were not made aware of the announcement until late on.
I understand the language being used by the Navy internally is for the OPVs to "monitor and provide passive deterrence". One person I spoke to likened it to police attending a protest – watching on the sidelines and not becoming involved.
The French navy responded by sending their own vessel, but its freedom to operate inside Jersey waters is limited.
The Pentagon, asked at a press conference about the deployment of British warships, declined to take sides but noted that France and the UK are NATO allies – you’d hope that would mean the two sides talk to one another professionally behind the scenes.
Fisheries post-Brexit were always going to be controversial, but it seems Downing Street is puffing out its chest and sending a strong message to Paris.