Four Royal Navy patrol boats will be ready from January 1 to help the UK protect its fishing waters in the event of a no-deal Brexit, in a deployment reminiscent of the ‘cod wars’ of the 1970s.
The 80m long armed vessels would have the power to stop, inspect and seize all EU fishing vessels operating in the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which may extend to some 300 km from the shore.
British naval sources said the deployment was long overdue, but it comes after Tory ministers quietly doubled the total patrol fleet from four to eight, in part in the event of a crisis arising after a no-deal Brexit.
“We have done a lot of work to make sure that we are prepared for all eventualities,” said an insider.
Although offshore patrol vessels are equipped with machine guns, one would not expect them to use weapons against EU fishing vessels. Instead, they would aim to skirt a ship suspected of breaking the rules, boarding it for inspection if deemed necessary.
In extreme cases, an EU boat could be impounded and taken to the nearest UK port. “No one is going to fire warning shots against French fishermen; firearms are only used when there is a danger to life, ”the navy source said.
During the “cod wars” between British and Icelandic trawlers in the early 1970s, fishing nets were cut and boats on both sides were regularly rammed. In a handful of incidents, shots were fired.
Fishing remains one of the main sticking points in the torturous trade negotiations between the EU and the UK. The complex economic argument over quotas, deadlines and the length of an industry-specific transition period has pitted Britain at daggers drawn with France.
Without a deal, EU boats would be banned from fishing in the UK’s EEZ, although that would also mean UK fishing boats would be banned from entering the waters of neighboring EU member states.
This week, the EU proposed a one-year extension of the transition period for fisheries to allow a deal to be negotiated, stressing the importance of the crisis.
Speaking at the end of Friday’s European Council meeting of EU leaders, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said: “We understand that the UK aspires to control its waters. The UK, on the other hand, needs to understand the legitimate expectations of EU fishing fleets built over decades and sometimes centuries of access. “
European and British boats have long fished in each other’s waters; today, EU trawlers take around 60 percent of the UK zone’s catch. Much of the catch is mackerel and herring – unpopular in Britain and therefore exported – while popular UK fish, such as cod, are generally imported.
It’s unclear how effectively the Navy can patrol the EEZ in practice – it can use satellite surveillance to help locate EU fishing vessels – and how aggressively the UK government will want to act against French vessels and other EU member states when relations with the EU are so delicate.
Fisheries patrol boats have long operated in UK waters, but a no-deal Brexit would have a significant impact on the tasks their crews would have to undertake. Two of the patrol boats, of the river class of the navy, will be at sea at the end of the year, while two others will be in port ready to deploy within a few hours’ notice, initially in English waters, because the fishing remains a devolved matter, but they are available throughout the UK.
In theory, other warships could be called upon if Boris Johnson wanted them to be used.
Chris Parry, former Rear Admiral and President of the Marine Management Organization, said ministers should act confidently. “I would seek to make an example and take a [EU fishing] boat or two in Harwich or Hastings. Once you impound them, others would not be so inclined to transgress without assurance.
But Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defense select committee, said he feared the navy would be overwhelmed at a time when Russian submarines were increasingly operating around the UK. “Our adversaries will smile as Europe’s greatest armies clash for fish.”
A Defense Ministry spokesperson said: “The Defense Ministry has conducted extensive planning and preparation to ensure that defense is ready for a range of scenarios at the end of the transition period. ” – Guardian