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'Gunboat diplomacy': UK plans to use Royal Navy to stop fishing boats branded 'irresponsible'

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By David Walsh
Royal Navy fishery protection vessels on patrol off the coast of Portsmouth, UK.
Royal Navy fishery protection vessels on patrol off the coast of Portsmouth, UK.   -   Copyright  Royal Navy/CROWN COPYRIGHT
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Plans to deploy Royal Navy ships to patrol UK coastal waters in the event of a no-deal Brexit on January 1 have been roundly criticised by politicians in both the UK and EU.

Under plans drawn up by the UK government, four 80-metre-long vessels, armed with cannons and machine guns, would have the power to stop, board and impound any EU-flagged fishing trawler operating within the UK's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

In addition, 14,000 military personnel have been put on standby.

The move, which was confirmed by the UK Ministry of Defence on Saturday, is reminiscent of the escalation which led to the so-called "Cod Wars" in the 1970s between the UK and Iceland.

British and Icelandic fishing boats were regularly rammed with shots fired and fishing nets cut.

In a statement, the UK government said: "We will have a range of robust enforcement measures in place to protect our rights as an independent coastal state at the end of the transition period.

"This includes numerous patrol vessels across military and marine organisations that are used to provide physical presence, deterrence and inspection capability, complemented by satellite-based surveillance technology".

Tobias Ellwood, a senior Conservative MP and chair of the Commons Defence Committee, branded the move as "irresponsible".

Taking to Twitter on Friday, he said: "Global threats increasing, Navy overstretched. Here we are squaring up to a NATO ally as beneath the same sea increased Russian sub/ drone activity goes unchecked".

He added: "Our friends (US) watch in dismay. Our foes (China/Russia) in joy. Let’s raise our game & get a deal".

Fishing remains one of the remaining bones of contention in efforts to broker a Brexit trade deal between the UK and the EU. UK prime minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen agreed to a deadline on Sunday in order to reach a deal.

Responding to news of the plans in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE on Saturday, Fianna Fail MEP Barry Andrews said: "I think it is irresponsible. It's completely inappropriate. It's 19th-century gun boat diplomacy".

He added: "This announcement was made yesterday [Friday], the day after the European Commission published a regulation that would have allowed for reciprocal access to each other's fishing waters.

"It is very disappointing to see this and it doesn't bode well for an accord being reached in the next 48 hours".

It is not the first time the use of the Royal Navy to protect fishing interests has been raised.

In October 2018, then-Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee that navy ships, aircraft and service personnel would be needed after Brexit to protect Britain's fishing waters.

His comments came after clashes between French and English fishermen in the English Channel in the so-called "Scallop Wars" earlier that year.

Last month, the Commons Brexit committee, led by Gove, again discussed the contingency plans for navy vessels to intercept and board French fishing boats in UK waters.

Plans to deploy the Royal Navy to deter French fishermen were however welcomed by Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs.

Tory MP for Shrewsbury, Daniel Kawczynski tweeted: "In the event of no deal with EU on Sunday, we must receive absolute guarantee from @BorisJohnson that British naval forces will be deployed from January 1st to prevent illegal French fishing in our waters".

Wokingham MP and long-time Eurosceptic Conservative politician John Redwood posted: "EU industrial trawlers have been hoovering up fish in UK waters in the last days under EU control.

"Glad we will patrol our waters as we have been doing, but this time to enforce our rules. We can have a fishing policy kinder to our industry and marine environment".