Shallow Waves

Stuff that matters

Four Royal Navy boats are on standby to patrol UK fishing waters in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The 80-metre vessels would guard British waters from EU trawlers in the event that there is no new agreement on fishing rights after December 31 when transitional arrangements end.

The confirmation of the move by the Ministry of Defence comes as Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned on both sides of the Channel that a no-deal outcome looked more likely than an agreement in the trade negotiations.

On Friday afternoon Mr Johnson met with senior minister Michael Gove, whose has responsibility for Brexit planning, and other officials to “take stock” of Government plans for a no-deal exit.

Fishing and the move, first reported in May, has been one of the most contentious issues in the negotiations with the bloc, with France reportedly discontent with the UK’s proposals for reducing quotas for EU skippers and a short implementation period.

Reciprocal access to each other’s waters will end next year but the two sides are at odds over what will replace the current terms, which the UK fishing industry has long argued leaves them short-changed.

As an independent coastal state come January, Britain will have the right to decide who fishes within its rich exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for fishing, which extends for up to 200 miles.

According to the Times, the Government is planning to beef-up patrol powers by bringing in legislation to allow the Navy to board foreign vessels and arrest fishermen amid fears of clashes in the English Channel if there is no deal.

The four Royal Navy boats readied for fishing surveillance are river patrol vessels which are armed with machine guns, reports the Guardian – although the newspaper said there was no expectation shots would need to be fired.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said the deployment of the boats had been agreed as part of planning for the end of the transition period.

A spokesman said: “The MoD has conducted extensive planning and preparation to ensure that defence is ready for a range of scenarios at the end of the transition period.

“This preparation includes a standby package of 14,000 personnel to ensure that we are ready to support other Government departments and authorities over the winter period, including with the EU transition, Covid-19 and potential severe weather events.”

The move is likely to be read in Brussels as a warning shot as negotiators knuckle down in a bid to secure an agreement this weekend after Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen agreed a firm decision was needed on the talks by Sunday.

Chief negotiators Michel Barnier and Lord Frost are set to talk throughout the weekend in Brussels.

Speaking to reporters on a visit to Blyth in Northumberland, Mr Johnson said fishing and a so-called level playing field “ratchet” that would tie the UK to future EU standards were the two major stumbling blocks to a deal.

He said: “There is the whole issue of fish where we’ve got to be able to take back control of our waters. So there is a way to go – we’re hopeful that progress can be made.

“But I’ve got to tell, that from where I stand now, here in Blyth, it is looking very, very likely that we will have to go for a solution that I think would be wonderful for the UK, and we’d be able to do exactly what we want from January.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, using the Prime Minister’s own words from 2019 against him, said that collapsing the negotiations with Brussels after promising to “get Brexit done” at the general election would represent a “complete failure of statecraft”.

Earlier on Friday, Ms von der Leyen said the UK and EU have “not yet found the solutions to bridge our differences” on fisheries.

The Commission president urged the Government to “understand the legitimate expectations of EU fishing fleets built on decades, and sometimes centuries, of access”.

“On these and other points, our negotiators are working. We will decide on Sunday whether we have the conditions for an agreement or not,” she said in Brussels.

“One way or the other, in less than three weeks it will be new beginnings for old friends.”