Boris Johnson has been accused of “irresponsible” behaviour akin to an “English nationalist” after Royal Navy gunboats were readied to patrol UK waters to prevent illegal fishing in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that four 80-metre armed vessels are on standby to guard British waters from European trawlers if there is no new Brexit agreement on fishing rights after 31 December when transitional arrangements end.
It comes as negotiations over a UK-EU trade deal are set to end on Sunday, with both sides conceding that a no-deal outcome is more likely than not.
Reports have suggested UK military helicopters will also be made available next year and that ministers are looking at boosting powers authorising the Navy to board vessels and arrest fishermen.
Reciprocal access to waters will end next year, although Brussels has called for the current terms to continue for 12 months – a request that appears to have been rejected.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, called the threat to deploy the Navy “irresponsible”, adding that the UK’s enemies would be “enjoying” seeing Britain “squaring up to a close NATO ally”.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Patten, meanwhile, accused Mr Johnson of behaving like an “English nationalist”.
The decision to ready the Navy – likely to be read as a warning in Brussels over fishing rights – comes after Mr Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen both warned of significant differences between London and Brussels in trade talks.
Mr Johnson chaired a meeting with senior UK officials on Friday night to take stock of the situation.
Former defence minister Mr Ellwood told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think these headlines are absolutely irresponsible. We need to be focusing on what is already in the bag – 98% of the deal is there, there are three or four outstanding issues.
“Important though they are, let’s park those for the future. Let’s get this deal because economically, but most importantly, international reputationally this would be so damaging to Britain – it would be a retrograde step, a failure of statecraft.”
Lord Patten, also told Today he feared for the UK’s future under Mr Johnson’s premiership.
The former Tory chairman and European commissioner said: “While I hope for the best, I do fear for the worst because it is very, very difficult to see what the plan is, how we’re going to do so brilliantly when we’re out of this ‘cage’ of Europe – which we of course helped to build because the main constructor of the single market was Margaret Thatcher.”
French MEP Pierre Karleskind, chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries, called for a calming of the rhetoric following the reports.
He told Times Radio: “Let’s keep cool. Let’s keep calm.
“I was just looking at a history book. 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.”
The trade talks remain deadlocked over fishing rights and the so-called level playing field, amid fears the UK would be tied to future EU standards.
Other Tories have called for tougher action, however, with Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski tweeting on Friday that naval forces should be deployed in the New Year “to prevent illegal French fishing in our waters”.
Admiral Lord West, a former chief of naval staff, also said he agreed with the Royal Navy being used to protect UK waters from foreign fishing vessels under no-deal.
Describing the practicalities, Lord West told Today: “There are complications in that you can push vessels aside, you can cut their fishing tackle but boarding these foreign ships, they’ll need to pass probably a little thing through Parliament to give authority to board and get on them.”
Ursula von der Leyen confirmed on Friday the two sides had “not yet found the solutions to bridge our differences” on fisheries.
She urged the government to “understand the legitimate expectations of EU fishing fleets built on decades, and sometimes centuries, of access”.
Mr Johnson said he was “hopeful” progress could be made.
Chief trade negotiators Michel Barnier and Lord Frost are set to talk throughout the weekend in Brussels.
Meanwhile, stretches of the M20 were closed overnight as a test is carried out on the motorway as part of a “dress rehearsal” for potential traffic problems after Brexit.
The scheme, known as Operation Brock, is to ease congestion in Kent if traffic is brought to a standstill due to disruption caused if the UK leaves the EU without an agreement and there is no longer frictionless trade.
The UK is sending a message to Macron and Barnier
Analysis by Rob Powell, political correspondent
Separating the theatrics from the substance in the Brexit saga can often be a tough task. Not today.
Last night’s confirmation from the Ministry of Defence that four Navy ships are on standby to deter EU vessels in the event of no deal sounds alarming.
“We’ll send in gunboats” screams the front page of this morning’s Daily Mail.
In reality, it’s the job of these four ‘offshore patrol vessels’ to safeguard UK waters.
“Chasing naughty fishermen” is how one former Navy sailor describes their task.
So it’s no great surprise that they’ll be used in the New Year – whatever Brexit arrangement is reached.
But the fact this story has been confirmed by the Ministry of Defence and has found its way onto the front pages does tell us something.
Fishing is one of the few areas where the UK has a high degree of leverage over the European Union.
If it is to be no deal, French fishing fleets that depend on UK waters to make a living will lose all access.
That could decimate coastal communities on the other side of the Channel and be politically toxic for French President Emmanuel Macron.
In cooking up this story, the UK is sending a message to him and Michel Barnier that it is serious about no deal.
Flexing muscles rather than revealing new facts.
As ever was the case in Brexit.