The authorities in Jersey have promised further talks to help resolve a dispute over fishing rights after a protest by French boats in the Channel Island’s main port.
A new forum bringing together fishing representatives and the Jersey government could be established in an effort to avoid a repeat of Thursday’s drama in the waters around St Helier.
The European Union accused Jersey of breaching the terms of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deal.
The European Commission said the authorities were imposing “additional conditions” on French fishing boats operating there, in breach of the terms of the agreement hammered out on Christmas Eve.
About 60 French fishing boats gathered off the island’s main port, St Helier, early on Thursday, to protest against the new licences they have been required to obtain from the Jersey government to carry on operating.
Two Royal Navy patrol vessels were sent to the area in response to the threat of a blockade of the port.
Local fishermen reported flares were let off and that some boats entered the harbour for about an hour, with footage posted online apparently showing a French boat ramming the rear of a Jersey vessel.
The French maritime authority for the Channel sent two police patrol boats to the area “to ensure the protection of human life at sea”.
The protest leaders denied they were seeking to impose a blockade and the flotilla eventually headed back to France.
The UK Government said the Royal Navy ships would return to port after the French vessels left.
One of the vessels was due to return home on Thursday, with the other heading to port on Friday.
During the protest emergency talks were held on the water, with Jersey government representatives on one boat and representatives of the French fishing fleet on another, in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions.
Jersey’s chief minister John Le Fondre said: “The French fishermen protested peacefully and respectfully, and were able to set out their concerns directly to government representatives.
“We recognise that there have been challenges in the implementation of the new trade agreement.
“Speaking directly to the fishermen has enabled both parties to better understand how those challenges will be addressed, and we are proposing the establishment of a forum which will enable the Government of Jersey to continue to engage with all fishermen in the region openly and constructively.”
The French fishermen had been able to leave Jersey “knowing that they had been listened to, and that a step has been taken towards resolving the issues that have arisen during the move to the new trade agreement”.
A UK Government spokesman said: “We are pleased that French fishing boats have now left the vicinity of Jersey.
“Given the situation is resolved for now, the Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels will prepare to return to port in the UK.
“We remain on standby to provide any further assistance Jersey requests.”
The UK insisted that the Jersey authorities have a right to regulate fisheries in their waters under the Brexit trade agreement.
“We will work with Jersey to support the discussions under way with the European Commission,” the spokesman said.
The row erupted after the Jersey Government said French boats would be required to obtain licences to carry on fishing in the island’s waters under the terms of the trade deal with the EU, which came into force last Friday.
The move provoked a wave of anger among French fishing communities, which complained that boats which had operated there for years were suddenly having their access restricted, because they could not prove their historical links with the waters.
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the European Commission said “additional conditions” attached to the new licences represented a breach of the trade deal.
She said they had “indicated to the UK that we see that the provisions of the EU/UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, that we recently agreed, have not been met there, have not been respected”.
Jersey’s external relations minister, Ian Gorst, said the island’s authorities were “extremely grateful” to the UK Government for its prompt deployment of the patrol boats HMS Severn and HMS Tamar.
However he insisted that they wanted to find a diplomatic solution to de-escalate the situation.
“It’s important that we respond to threats, but the answer to this solution is to continue to talk and diplomacy,” he told BBC News.
Earlier this week, French maritime minister Annick Girardin said Paris would cut off electricity to Jersey – which gets 95% of its power supply from France – if the dispute was not resolved.
The Jersey government has said that of the 41 French boats that applied for licences last Friday, 17 had been unable to provide the evidence needed to enable them to carry on as before.
Mr Gorst said: “It’s really important that we are able to work with those fishermen to help them provide the necessary evidence so that, if required, their licences can be amended.”
Nevertheless, there was concern on the island that the French action could escalate if the dispute was not resolved.
Fisherman Josh Dearing said the appearance of the French boats had been “like an invasion”, and welcomed the presence of the Royal Navy ships.
“The French can be hostile. All of our livelihoods are in that harbour and if they wanted to they could cause damage,” he told the PA news agency.
“They can blockade their own harbours – they wouldn’t think twice about coming and doing it to us.”