Written by: Louis Rawlinson
On the 6th May 2021, the waters around the Channel Islands bore witness to a display of Anglo-French rivalry, and the crash and roar of British and French nationalism batting heads, making a wave that is strong enough to capsize any vessel, and deep enough to drown any man. But to the Royal Navy, witnessing this confrontation between angry fisherman from afar, such a scene was to be averted at all costs. While the year 2021 has overseen many devastating events, mainland Europe has not been immune to the ripples and reverberations of a post-Brexit Britain.
The competition over fish and access to territorial waters has made the sea surrounding the Channel Islands as much a struggle for resources as a bitter duel for identity between the United Kingdom and France. With the radical legal changes in the wake of Britain’s exiting of the European Union, and the concession of EU authority on the matter of fishing rights in the French channel, the supposed ‘birth right’ to the channel which Britain and France both profess to have had, with arguments being put forth such as “Our families have fished here for generations”, seem as ridiculous as medieval legends alluding to strange aquatic beings imparting true power to the King. But where is this Lady of the Channel? And to whom does her scimitar point?
From one direction it is apparent that the historic right which both nations use to lay their claim to these waters in the channel provides us with some insight. In both Britain and France, we can see how this history is being harnessed for political gain today, with one man interviewed by Channel Four news saying that “Well they may be playing hard ball with the French to impress the electorate over here.” The assertions of President Macron that France would not concede to Britain on this matter are certainly concurrent with this point.
The centrepiece to this duel, the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey, find themselves at the crosshairs of the confrontation. With a foreboding history of besiegement and invasion behind them, notably the occupation by Nazi Germany in 1940, they provide powerful symbols of national identity. The national ties to the Channel Islands and Britain are further strengthened by the fact that towards the end of December in 1944 the Red Cross Ship SS Veca arrived at the islands providing food and other essentials to the islanders. Anthony D Smith writes that ‘Usually there had been some ethnic basis for the construction of modern nations, be it only some dim memories and elements of culture and alleged ancestry, which it hoped to revive’. In the case of these islands we can see the faded memories of yesteryear of invasion and occupation come to the fore in this fishing row, with France threatening to cease Britain’s access to the Channel through Jersey harbour via an effective blockade. Such a daring move points to a new age of political engagement between Britain and France where nationalist rhetoric and action are more permissible with the absence of EU law to act as an effective power broker. Not only does this indicate how nationalist sentiment may come to interfere in politics in the future, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson needing to continually stress his willingness to co-operate on the issue of climate change, whilst committing to British fishing rights in a post-Brexit Britain. It shows us the impact of how such sentiment had for years been underwater. Moreover, it exposes how the sovereign state system has once again awoken, bringing back the medieval style spats and disputes between Britain and France which we consider to be history. Alexander B. Murphy writes that ‘One of the most important of these was the idea that final authority over most if not all social, economic, and political matters should rest with those in control of the territorial units that make up the system.’ As we see small trawlers and crews of fisherman protest, with the Navy of both respective nations serving as an onlooker, perhaps it is rash to state that the final authorities have been the instigators and masterminds behind this clash, however both governments are not devoid of taking responsibility for this maritime dispute. This means that to some extent, European politics have become even more centred around the respective governments in dispute rather than the EU acting as a sole and multilateral arbiter. This is fertile ground for nationalism in Europe in the near future.
But why is France taking action which is deemed so ‘disproportionate’ in the eyes of Britain? Perhaps the Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard provides the best answer to this when he says that the Brexit deal has made both French and British fisherman feeling “betrayed”. The rather long history of co-operation between Britain and France must seemingly come to a sad close with the onset of the Brexit agreement, and perhaps the display of trawlers flying the tricolour and lighting flares partly demonstrates the two countries frustration at having to demonstrate their national pride whilst yearning for the free and open access of the Channel Island waters which both the UK and France once both enjoyed. But as nationalist politics grasps the populations in both Britain and France we do not remember the recent past anymore. When we commit to the sole idea of the nation state, as Mr Johnson’s bold rhetoric in the 2019 Manifesto states “we will defend and protect our United Kingdom, the awesome foursome that make up the most successful political partnership in history”, it is unsurprising that Britain had disregarded ‘Europeanness’ and has shifted back to its Island identity. As the tide of British nationalism has washed ashore notions of British “Greatness” and “self- reliance”, it has further isolated the UK from its closest overseas neighbours. We can see this clearly when the 2019 manifesto goes on to write that “we are able to deliver all the advantages of leaving the EU: making our own laws, controlling our own borders, taking back our money and exercising all new kinds of freedoms.” As has been visible from around Guernsey and Jersey, the decision to exercise ‘all new kinds of freedoms’ such as the freedom to exclude the rights of French and other European vessels to fish in the same waters has come at a cost to Britain’s reputation on the continent, and will inevitably lead to the UK becoming an increasingly polarized island, and inter-state politics turning increasingly nationalist in Europe.
Featured Imagery: Jersey, Noirmont Point, Channel Islands on Wikimedia Commons.