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France’s threat to cut off electricity to Jersey proves the UK needs to rely less on the EU for energy

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The French government’s threat to cut off electricity to the isle of Jersey amid a row over post-Brexit fishing rights highlights the risks the UK faces from its reliance on the European Union for energy imports.

What’s the issue?

France as well as the wider EU continue to act aggressively towards the UK following Brexit. From the way the EU has acted over the Covid-19 vaccines this latest spat is just another diplomatic spat between Britain and its bitter European neighbours.

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This latest issue has arisen from French complaints over new post Brexit rules that govern access to the waters around the Channel Islands. Under the new rules French fishermen have to obtain a licence and display a history of fishing in the area.

In a statement to AFP news agency, the French fisheries ministry said the UK had introduced "new technical measures" linked to licences for fishing off the Channel Islands which had not been communicated to the EU and were therefore "null and void".

According to the British Government, Jersey is a Crown Dependency that has full control and responsibility over its waters and thanks to Brexit has every right to ensure that those fishing in its waters are legitimate and following the new licencing rules.

“To threaten Jersey like this is clearly unacceptable and disproportionate, we are working closely with the EU and Jersey on fisheries access provisions following the end of the transition period so trust the French will use the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems,” said a spokesperson.

Escalation

The matter escalated after French Maritime Minister Annick Girardin told the French parliament that the new rules were unacceptable and earlier in the week threatened to cut off electricity to the island in retaliation.

“France is ready to use retaliatory measures. Regarding Jersey, I remind you of the delivery of electricity along underwater cables… even if it would be regrettable if we had to do it, we'll do it if we have to,” Girardin said.

Since then, eighty French fishing vessels sailed to Jersey and in protest threatened to blockade the islands main port of St. Helier. In response, the British government dispatched two Royal Navy ships HMS Tamar and HMS Severn to the area to monitor the situation.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “HMS Severn and HMS Tamar are deploying to Jersey to conduct maritime security patrols. This is a strictly precautionary measure and has been agreed with the Jersey government.”

In a sign of escalation France dispatched a warship of its own to the area.

Wider Energy Import Issues

The British government has not taken the threats made by the French lightly and has claimed that its actions fitted a pattern of behaviour by it and the EU member states since the Brexit transition period ended on 1 January.

“Comments such as these are surprising and disappointing, especially from a close neighbour,” the UK official said. “This is just the latest example of the EU issuing threats as a first resort at any sign of difficulty. They should be using the mechanisms of our new treaty to solve problems; that is exactly what it is there for.”

In energy terms, this latest clash of words and rising tensions further highlights just how vulnerable the UK and its territories are to being held ‘ransom’ by the EU over electricity and gas imports.

If the EU does nothing and allows the French to cut off electricity to Jersey, then what is to stop them from cutting off imports via interconnectors to the wider UK in order to get what they want should normal diplomatic means fail?

Although historically relatively self-sufficient in covering energy demand, the UK’s dependency on energy imports has increased in the past few decades. With that dependency reaching a peak in 2013, at 48%.

With the government striving to hit strict carbon emissions targets by replacing all petrol/diesel cars with electric ones, replacing all gas boilers with electric heat pumps the country needs to become more self-sufficient when it comes to electricity generation. 

The ‘Green’ revolution will require a huge amount of investment in order to manage the expected increase in electricity use.

Although the UK continues to record an increase in the total amount of renewables in its energy mix, it also recorded a 10% increase in electricity imports to meet its energy demands in 2019 and that pattern has continued into 2021.

Concerns over the Brexit deal already becoming reality?

In January observers paying attention to the much vaunted Brexit deal signed by the UK government raised concerns that the EU will be able to effectively blackmail the UK into granting EU fishing vessels access to UK waters or else face repercussions when it comes to the energy side of the deal.

This incident in Jersey just proves that those concerns are justified. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that such disputes and threatening action has taken place so soon after the deal was signed.

Such a clause in the deal should be a wake-up call to the UK energy sector and hasten the need to make the nation as energy independent as possible.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 6, 2021

How much of the Jersey grid mix typically relies on French imports rather than coming from the UK? And amid Brexit was there any posturing to start to get the island more domestic connections to get ahead of these types of messy geopolitical situations? 

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