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Conservative anger over Navy no-deal threat as trade negotiations enter final days

Four Navy patrol vessels have been put on standby to guard British fishing waters if there is no agreement.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen earlier this week in Brussels.
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen earlier this week in Brussels.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Updated Dec 12th 2020, 2:04 PM

SENIOR CONSERVATIVES HAVE reacted in anger to Boris Johnson’s handling of the Brexit trade negotiations and the threat to deploy Royal Navy gunboats to patrol UK fishing waters in the event of no-deal. 

The British Ministry of Defence has confirmed that four 80-metre armed vessels have been placed on standby to 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.

Reports also suggested that military helicopter surveillance will be made available and that ministers are considering beefing-up Navy powers in legislation to authorise them to board and arrest fishermen found to be contravening post-Brexit rules.

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

Former defence minister Ellwood voiced his concern about the Royal Navy proposals and urged for the gaps in the negotiations to be bridged before the deadline.

Lord Patten, speaking to the Today programme, said he feared for the UK’s future under Johnson’s leadership.

Patten said: “While I hope for the best, I do fear for the worst because it is very, very difficult to see what the plan is, how we’re going to do so brilliantly when we’re out of this ‘cage’ of Europe – which we of course helped to build because the main constructor of the single market was Margaret Thatcher.”

The move is likely to be read in Brussels as a shot across the bows as negotiators knuckle down in a bid to secure an agreement this weekend.

No-deal ‘very, very likely’

This follows after Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned that a no-deal outcome looked more likely than an agreement in the trade negotiations.

Johnson said yesterday that it is “very, very likely” that the UK will fail to strike a trade deal.

The prime minister said he was “hopeful” that progress could be made in talks but stressed that the two sides remained stuck on fisheries and ‘level-playing field’ rules.

His comments came after European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the negotiating teams’ positions remained apart on “fundamental issues”.

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said yesterday that “it is possible to get a deal”.

He added that could be achieved in a way that protected the EU’s interests in preserving the integrity of the Single Market while respecting Britain’s insistence on being an independent and sovereign country outside the bloc.

Chief negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost are set to talk throughout the weekend in Brussels after Johnson and von der Leyen agreed at a dinner on Wednesday to resume negotiations ahead of a decision on the future of talks tomorrow.

Meeting with Gove

Yesterday afternoon, Johnson met with senior British minister Michael Gove, who has responsibility for Brexit planning, and other officials to “take stock” of the British government’s plans for a no-deal exit.

It follows reports that German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron rebuffed Johnson three times this week after he made attempts to speak to them directly about the stalled trade discussions.

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

Speaking to reporters on a visit to Blyth in Northumberland, 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.

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

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

With reporting by Orla Dwyer

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