Irish MEP Barry Andrews has criticised the British government's plan to put Royal Navy patrol boats on standby to protect UK waters in the event of a no-deal Brexit. 

"I think it is irresponsible. It's completely inappropriate. It's 19th century gun boat diplomacy," he said.

The British Ministry of Defence said four ships were ready for "robust enforcement" when the transition period ends as fishing continues to be one of the major sticking points in negotiations.

Mr Andrews, a member of the European Parliament Committee on International Trade, said the announcement was made the day after the European Commission published a regulation that would have allowed for reciprocal EU-UK access to each other's fishing waters.

"We have an approach to a modern free trade deal and a responsible attitude in the event of no-deal and the UK decides to deploy naval vessels.

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

The Department of Defence told RTÉ that fisheries protection "in accordance with the state's obligations as a member of the European Union" is the main day-to-day role of the Irish Navy.

It said 90% of the patrols it carries out "on a regular and frequent basis" are dedicated to it. The patrols cover Irish waters from the shoreline to the outer limits of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

The statement came in response to a query from RTÉ News after the UK government announced it will be deploying Royal Navy ships to prevent EU boats fishing in British waters.

Asked about what plans there might be for Irish Navy patrols following the end of the Brexit transition period, the Department of Defence said "for operational and security reasons" it would not be appropriate to "disclose details of the operational deployment of any individual vessel in the Naval Service now or in the future".

Talks between Britain and the EU will continue overnight but Downing Street believes the current offer from the EU remains unacceptable, a British government source said today.

"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," the source said.

A senior EU source said: "The defence of the single market is a red line for the European Union. What we have proposed to the United Kingdom respects British sovereignty. It could be the basis for an agreement." 

Sources told RTÉ that the "gunboat" headlines have "not helped the mood" on the EU side.

Chief negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, and his UK counterpart David Frost held one meeting today. "Nothing concrete" came out of it, a source said. In general, talks are said to remain "very difficult".

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are expected to speak again tomorrow.

Earlier, the British Ministry of Defence revealed that four Royal Navy vessels were on standby to guard British waters in the event of no agreement on fishing rights after 31 December when transitional arrangements end.


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Preparations are also being made at ports, with part of the M20 motorway to be shut for four consecutive nights across the weekend as Kent tests plans to tackle any disruption as a result of customs changes.

The European Commission yesterday proposed mini-deals to keep freight, rail and air links open in the short term if there is no-deal, while arguing that the status quo should continue for another year on fishing rights, allowing reciprocal access to each other's waters until 31 December, 2021.

Downing Street said it would study the details closely.

Mr Johnson met senior minister Michael Gove, who has responsibility for Brexit planning, and other officials yesterday afternoon to "take stock" of UK government plans for a no-deal exit.

It follows reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron rebuffed the British prime minister three times this week after he made attempts to speak to them directly about the stalled trade discussions.

Fishing has been one of the most contentious issues in the post-Brexit negotiations, with France reportedly unhappy with the UK's proposals for reducing quotas for EU skippers and a short implementation period.

Reciprocal access to each other's waters will end next year but the two sides are at odds over what will replace the current terms, which the UK fishing industry has long argued leaves them short-changed.

Some Conservative MPs have been urging Boris Johnson to ensure that UK waters would be properly protected in the event of the talks collapsing.

Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski tweeted: "In the event of no-deal with EU on Sunday we must receive absolute guarantee from Boris Johnson that British naval forces will be deployed from 1 January to prevent illegal French fishing in our waters."

However, some senior Conservatives have reacted angrily to Boris Johnson's handling of the Brexit trade negotiations and the threat to deploy Royal Navy gunboats to patrol UK fishing waters in the event of no-deal.

Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, called the threat "irresponsible" while former European commissioner Chris Patten accused his prime minister of behaving like an "English nationalist".

Additional reporting Tony Connelly, Colman O'Sullivan, AFP