Boris Johnson has put four Royal Navy patrol ships on standby to stop European fishing vessels if they encroach on British waters in the event of a no-deal Brexit in the latest escalation of tensions between the UK and the EU.
The move is the latest visible sign of preparations for the UK leaving the single market without a trade deal, after negotiations between the two sides failed to produce a breakthrough.
Only three weeks remain before the end of the transition period, at which point the UK automatically crashes out of the bloc without a trade deal.
The prime minister on Friday said it was “very, very likely” that the talks would end without a deal, leaving the UK trading with its nearest neighbours on basic World Trade Organization terms.
Officials on Friday evening confirmed that the Royal Navy is set to deploy its four 80-metre River Class offshore patrol boats to stop French and other European fishing boats illegally entering British waters in the English Channel after a no-deal Brexit.
They would be deployed from January 1 to police the UK’s “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), which stretches up to 200 nautical miles from the coastline. The boats, which carry machine guns, would have the power to halt, inspect and impound any EU fishing boats illegally entering the area.
The preparations reflect the fact that ministers are concerned about the potential for struggles between rival fishing fleets if EU boats are suddenly banned from entering Britain’s waters.
During the “cod wars” between British and Icelandic trawlers in the 1970s altercations broke out, with boats sometimes rammed and shots fired on occasions. At one point London deployed frigates to protect British fishing boats.
Fishing has been one of the final sticking points in the talks between London and Brussels.
The EU, which is responsible for about 60 per cent of the catch from UK waters, is reluctant to give up more than a small fraction of its fishing rights.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, on Friday said he was unwilling to “give up my share of the cake” on the country’s rights to fish in British waters. “I’m not asking to have my cake and eat it, no,” he said. “All I want is a cake that’s worth its weight.”
Mr Johnson likewise said: “There is the whole issue of fish where we’ve got to be able to take back control of our waters.”
Under the plans to deploy four naval vessels, two would be at sea from the new year with two remaining in port at any time. One official described the plan as part of a “range of robust enforcement measures” to protect Britain’s rights as an independent coastal state.
The Ministry of Defence said 14,000 military personnel were on standby to support the government over the winter. “The MoD has conducted extensive planning and preparation to ensure that Defence is ready for a range of scenarios at the end of the transition period,” it said.