As negotiations on a UK-EU trade deal are set to continue overnight, a British government source has said that “as things stand the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable”.
Both sides now concede that a no-deal outcome is more likely than not when the talks end on Sunday, and Royal Navy gunboats have been readied to patrol UK waters to prevent illegal fishing in the event of a no-deal Brexit on 1 January.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von de Leyen are expected to continue speaking tomorrow.
The government source said: “Talks are continuing overnight, but as things stand the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable.
“The prime minister will leave no stone unturned in this process, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks’ time.”
It comes as Boris Johnson was 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.
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.
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.
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.
France shrugged off the plans as an Elysee official told the Reuters news agency “keep calm and carry on”, quoting the British wartime slogan in response to London’s decision to assign the gunboats.
They declined to comment further.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, expressed his distaste at the threat to deploy the navy, adding that the UK’s enemies would be “laughing at us” while the country squared up to a 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 Sky News: “Here we are, these undignified reports suggesting that our overstretched navy is going to square up to our NATO ally over fishing vessel rights, at the same time beneath the surface of that water we have increased activity from Russian submarines and Russian drones.
“Our adversaries must be laughing at us and we need to get back to the table, focus on what’s important in these last 24-48 hours.”
Lord Patten told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that 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.
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“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.
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