Navy threat to EU fishing ships branded ‘irresponsible’ by Tory MP

11 December 2020, 23:25 | Updated: 12 December 2020, 15:01

Royal Navy offshore patrol boats will be used to protect British fishing water in a no-deal Brexit scenario
Royal Navy offshore patrol boats will be used to protect British fishing water in a no-deal Brexit scenario. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

Four Royal Navy ships are being prepared to patrol UK fishing waters if the country leaves the EU without a Brexit deal on January 1, the Government has confirmed.

Some senior Conservatives have reacted angrily to plans for 80-metre vessels to guard British waters from European trawlers in the increasingly likely event of a no-deal Brexit.

Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, called the threat "irresponsible", while former European commissioner Lord Patten accused the Prime Minister of behaving like an "English nationalist".

The Navy ships would have powers to seize EU boats and escort them to the nearest UK port in the most extreme cases.

The move, confirmed by the Ministry of Defence on Friday, comes as Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned on both sides of the Channel that a no-deal outcome looks more likely by the day.

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Chief trade negotiators Michel Barnier and Lord Frost were set to start negotiating again shortly before midday on Saturday in Brussels, with talks also scheduled for Sunday.

The talks are in their final hours with what is understood to be a deadline for a deal set for Sunday after months of discussions failed to reach an agreement.

Four Royal Navy offshore patrol boats are on standby
Four Royal Navy offshore patrol boats are on standby. Picture: PA Images

An MoD spokesman told reporters: "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 follows calls from Brexiteer backbenchers to protect Britain's waters. On Friday, Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski tweeted that naval forces should be deployed in the New Year "to prevent illegal French fishing in our waters".

However, defence committee chair Tobias Ellwood branded plans as "irresponsible", writing: "Global threats increasing, Navy overstretched. Here we are squaring up to a NATO ally as beneath the same sea increased Russian sub/ drone activity goes unchecked.

"Our friends (US) watch in dismay. Our foes (China/Russia) in joy. Let’s raise our game & get a deal."

Fishing rights is one of the most contentious issues in talks between the two sides, with France pressuring EU leaders to press for access to British waters after December 31.

Speaking to reporters on a visit to Blyth in Northumberland, Mr Johnson claimed 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.

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"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."

It was confirmed on Friday afternoon that Mr Johnson held a meeting with senior minister Michael Gove, who has responsibility for Brexit planning, and other senior officials to "take stock" of Government plans for a no-deal outcome.

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Mr Johnson is already facing criticism from political opponents over the prospect of him breaking a key promise during his general election campaign in 2019.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, using the PM's own words against him, told reporters that collapsing negotiations with Brussels after promising to "get Brexit done" would represent a "complete failure of statecraft".

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He criticised the Conservatives for attempting to “dress up” a no-deal scenario as an “Australian-style agreement".

"There's no point dressing it up as an Australian deal. You might as well call it a Mongolian deal,” Sir Keir said.

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On both sides of the Channel planning is being stepped up ahead of a potential no-deal Brexit.

A section of the M20 motorway will close overnight for several days as part of a “dress rehearsal” for traffic problems after the UK leaves the EU.

Friday was the first night of the plan practice run, which will last for four days and see the creation of a contraflow system and diversions.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the European Commission set out contingency measures aimed at coping with the disruption if no trade deal can be agreed with the UK.

The measures would ensure basic reciprocal air and road connectivity between the EU and the UK - and allow for the possibility of reciprocal fishing access.