Four Royal Navy patrol ships will be ready on January 1 to help protect the United Kingdom’s fishing waters in the event the Brexit transition period ends without a deal on future ties with the European Union, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) said.
There are concerns about possible skirmishes between the UK and foreign fishing vessels if no trade deal is reached, with existing transitional rules that give EU boats access to British waters set to expire at the end of the year.
“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,” an MOD spokesman said.
The 80-metre-long navy vessels will have the power to stop, check and impound all EU fishing boats operating within the UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which can extend 200 nautical miles (370km) from shore.
The Guardian newspaper reported on Friday that two vessels will be deployed at sea with two on standby in case EU fishing boats enter the EEZ.
The River-class patrol vessels of the Fishery Protection Squadron – the Royal Navy’s oldest front-line squadron with a history dating back more than 500 years – already enforce UK and EU fisheries law.
Hardline Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs have sought assurances that the navy should be deployed to protect British waters in the event of a “no-deal”.
Conservative Party legislator Daniel Kawczynski said it would help “prevent illegal French fishing”.
But Tobias Ellwood, a fellow Conservative Party politician who chairs the UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee, was critical of the development.
“We’re just facing the prospect of … our overstretched Royal Navy squaring up to a close NATO ally overfishing vessel rights,” he told BBC radio.
“Our adversaries must be really enjoying this,” he said.
A French minister said on Thursday that France would compensate its fishermen and take other measures to help them if talks on a trade deal collapse, in an effort to avoid clashes at sea.
The UK quit the EU in January but remains an informal member until December 31 – the end of a transition period during which it has remained in the EU single market and customs union.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it is “very, very likely” the talks will fail, and the UK will revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) terms with its largest single trading partner.
European leaders have also been told the chances of a deal are slim with both sides at loggerheads over rules to govern fair competition and fishing rights in British territorial waters.
WTO terms would mean tariffs and quotas, driving up prices for businesses and consumers, and the reintroduction of border checks for the first time in decades.