As both sides on Friday agreed that the talks would probably result in no definitive accord, UK Prime Minister Johnson met with Michael Gove, the minister in charge of global Brexit planning issues, in order to “take stock” of would-be arrangements should a no-deal exit happen.
The UK is also readying Royal Navy patrol ships to help protect its fishing waters, a report by The Guardian has it citing insiders in the negotiations. They specified that the 80-metre-long armed vessels would be fully capable of not only inspecting, but halting and impounding all EU fishing boats operating within the UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which can extend 200 miles from the coastline.
The news immediately drew staunch criticism and praise alike. On Saturday, Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the Commons Defence Committee, called the idea to use armed vessels to guard Britain’s waters irresponsible citing a slew of more burning issues to deal with:
“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 recounted on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He went on to fume that the UK in this day and age is “no Elizabethan any more”, but “global Britain” that has to push the “bar much higher than this”.
Ellwood went still further warning against a no-deal outcome, which Boris Johnson said was “very likely”, arguing that it would be damaging to Britain – “a retrograde step, a failure of statecraft”.
Ex-admiral Sir Alan West, on the contrary, said the navy is obliged to protect UK waters from foreign fishing vessels if asked to weigh in.
“It is absolutely appropriate that the Royal Navy should protect our waters if the position is that we are a sovereign state and our government has said we don’t want other nations there”, the peer told Today.
Separately, Pierre Karleskind, the chairman of the European parliament’s committee on fisheries, believes there is nothing wrong in the deployment of ships, yet he likewise rushed to warn about the implications of a no-deal outcome. “I really think a no-deal would be a lose-lose deal. Lose for you, lose for us. I’m pretty sure of that”.
He suggested the said move to get armed vessels engaged is not solely about fishing:
“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”.
Post-Brexit Trade and Governance Stalemate
The tortuous talks, which were at some point completely stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic, are largely hampered by three sticking points on the Brexit agenda that the sides have so far failed to reach a common ground on.
One of these is fisheries: while the UK deems it necessary to sit down at the negotiating table annually to determine individually applied quotas, the EU has been pushing for a wider and more universal in terms of time access to the British fishing waters that Downing Street has repeatedly referred to as sovereign.
Another divisive issue is the so-called level playing field, which is an umbrella term for all market conditions that will apply for European businesses in the UK and for British enterprises in EU member states and that are hoped to guarantee fair market play. If the latter stumbling clock is not decided before the end of the transition period, slated to end on 31 December, the UK and the EU will trade on general WTO rules, which basically involve duties and tariffs, as well as border controls.
The earlier deadline for talks to arrive at a clear-cut economic and governance deal, with enough time earmarked for its ratification in European and British parliaments, is Sunday.