Britain and the French have fought at least two dozen sea battles since the Middle Ages, ranging from a couple during the Hundred Years War through numerous ones in British wars against Napoleon.
History records that not a one of those was fought over the whelk, an edible sea snail.
Yet suddenly, off the shores of Jersey, a British island in the English Channel, a French flotilla of fishing boats blocked its only harbor to protest a reduction in permits for harvesting whelks and scallops. One French trawler rammed a British speedboat whose crew was extending the finger.
In Paris, French Minister for Maritime Affairs Annick Girardin raised the stakes. She threatened to cut electrical power supplies that run from France to the island unless more expansive permits were restored.
The British government called the threat to pull the power plug “revolting,” while Jerseymen described the French blockade as “close to an act of war.” London sent two naval patrol vessels armed with a cannon and a pair of machine guns, prompting France to send a couple of its own armed craft.
This kerfuffle might be easily resolved if it were just a dispute between two countries. Indeed, an agreement between France and the UK over Jersey fishing rights had endured for almost 200 years.
But this is a post-Brexit quarrel and, in the UK’s long march to exiting the European Union, hardly any element of divorce has gone without controversy.
The British resent EU bureaucratic trade rules that have piled red tape on UK exporters. The EU – and France – think the UK wants the previous advantages of EU membership without adherence to the Union’s myriad regulations.
In addition, although the two sides signed a so-called Trade and Cooperation Agreement late last year, there are plenty of odds and ends that still need negotiation. Some of them are big ticket items, such as forging joint rules for financial services, finalizing permanent agreements on data protection and reaching accord regarding Northern Ireland trade.
The failure to finalize deals and take care of other details, such as fishing rights, has raised suspicion and resentments on both sides of the English Channel.
Last week, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, released a book on the laborious talks with the UK that followed its 2016 Brexit referendum to leave. His critique is withering. He accuses the Tory party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, of “political piracy” and of habitually “offering a little and taking a lot.”
“Simply,” Barnier writes, “I no longer trust them.”
That feeling is on vivid display offshore of Jersey.
In March Jersey fishermen complained that, post-Brexit, the EU had instituted rules that made it impossible for Jerseymen to deliver shellfish directly to French ports. Instead, they had fist to put the catch through a “depuration process,” by placing the shellfish in fresh water to filter out impurities. French fishermen would not have to purify their catch before taking it to French markets.
Jersey authorities retaliated: They canceled the 200-year old agreement that let scores of French vessels work in Jersey waters. They issued new quotas for French fishermen that reduced their take. And they published the restrictions just before last weekend without giving advance warning.
Distrust blossomed. French officials suspected that the Jersey fishermen’s problems were being used dispute to pressure London to end French fishing in all UK waters, a move desired by other British fishing communities.
The British conjectured that the EU at every turn wants to punish the UK for leaving the organization. In addition, they believed that the government of French President Emmanuel Macron was taking a tough line to burnish nationalistic credentials before next year’s presidential elections, when Macron will face a strong challenge from the right-wing National Front Party.
Late Thursday, the French trawlers went home and the ominous presence of UK and French patrol vessels ended. All sides agreed to setting up some sort of forum to resolve the dispute. It’s not yet clear what happens in the meantime, because both sides expect their governments to back their claims.
The Sun newspaper quoted a French fisherman as saying, “Next time there will be war.”
Where are Nelson and Napoleon when you need them?
Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.