THE UK HAS fired a warning shot to Brussels over a no-deal scenario after readying Royal Navy boats to patrol its fishing waters as negotiations enter their final 48 hours.
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.
The confirmation of the move by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) 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.
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.
According to the Times, ministers are set to beef up patrol powers by bringing in legislation to allow the Navy to board foreign vessels and arrest fishermen if there is no agreement, in scenes reminiscent of the 1970s Cod Wars.
The Guardian reported that the four Royal Navy boats readied for fishing surveillance are river patrol vessels which are armed with machine guns – although the newspaper said there was no expectation shots would need to be fired.
Conservative MPs have been urging Johnson to ensure that UK waters would be properly protected in the event of the talks collapsing.
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.”
The Daily Mail reported that Wildcat and Merlin helicopters were also being placed on standby to assist with surveillance of the country’s territorial coast.
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.
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