Trade talks between the UK and the EU are continuing with less than 48 hours to go until the deadline imposed by both parties to reach a deal.
With both sides warning on Friday that an agreement on trade was unlikely, Boris Johnson met Michael Gove, the minister who has responsibility for Brexit planning, to “take stock” of plans for a no-deal exit from the EU. The UK is also readying four Royal Navy patrol ships to help protect its fishing waters from 1 January in the event a deal cannot be reached.
The 80-metre-long vessels, armed with machine guns, would have the power to halt, inspect and impound all EU fishing boats operating within the UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which can extend 200 miles from shore.
Speaking to reporters on a visit to Blyth in Northumberland on Friday, Johnson said fishing was one of two major impediments to a deal – the other being how to maintain fair competition once the UK is able to set its own standards and regulations from the end of the transition period in three weeks’ time.
On Saturday, Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the commons defence committee, called the threat to use Royal Navy gunboats to protect UK fishing waters irresponsible at a time of more pressing threats.
“We’re facing the undignified prospect right now of our overstretched Royal Navy squaring up to a close Nato ally over fishing vessel rights when we are witnessing an increasing presence of Russian drone activity and subsurface activity – our adversaries must really be enjoying this blue on blue,” the former defence minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“This isn’t Elizabethan times any more, this is global Britain – we need to be raising the bar much higher than this.”
He said the focus should be on reaching a deal, warning that failure to do so “would be so damaging to Britain – it would be a retrograde step, a failure of statecraft”.
The French MEP Pierre Karleskind, the chairman of the European parliament’s committee on fisheries, also warned about the consequences of no deal, as he called for calm about the potential deployment of the Royal Navy vessels.
“Let’s keep cool. Let’s keep calm. I was just looking at a history book,” he told Times Radio. “The creation of the French Royal Navy was done in 1294 in response to naval battles between French and English fishermen. So this is a long, long history between our two nations.
“You’re saying it’s about fish but let’s think just a few seconds. Do you really think it’s only about fish that navy ships are used and will be used? I don’t think so. I think there are other interests like the control of the border, especially the question of migrants.”
He added: “I really think a no-deal would be a lose-lose deal. Lose for you, lose for us. I’m pretty sure of that. I don’t know if a deal would be a win-win, but I’m absolutely sure that a no-deal would be a lose-lose deal.”
Johnson declared on Friday that a no deal on trade was “very likely” as it emerged that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel flatly rejected his appeal for direct talks earlier in the week. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a similar warning about the trajectory of the talks earlier on Friday.