Will the British use gunboats against French fishing boats?

(To Stefano Peverati)

Given the difficulties and the protracted negotiations regarding Brexit (with the possibility that it materializes without any agreement), tensions would arise regarding fishing rights in the North Sea, to the point of requiring the intervention of the ships of the Royal Navy to protect the British fishing industry from French fishing vessels.

The provocative headlines of the tabloids clickbait (transl. "acchiappaclic", ed.) who propose to "send the gunboats" do so only to ensure a wide media coverage and the consequent income, also because if the United Kingdom does not obtain the fishing rights in its waters it would be a reason of strong embarrassment. Certainly the Royal Navy's oldest mission is to protect national fisheries. The patrol vessels carrying out this task are equipped with light armaments, but for good reason, the use of force must only occur for a few and justified situations.

Furthermore, the term "gunboat" is not a properly recognized naval term and is fraught with negative connotations from the days of the empire, when Britain imposed its will on lower maritime powers ("Policy of the Gunship"). The Royal Navy's job, on the other hand, is to support London's interests, which on some occasions could mean resorting to force, but in this case it would be completely counterproductive.

Even the suggestion to consider the random opening of fire on civilian vessels trespassing into UK waters would also violate international law, hamper negotiations and damage the UK's reputation in the world. Sinking a fishing vessel would immediately put British fishermen in similar danger, leading to a total embargo on fish exports and restrictions on access to ports.

To protect the fish resources of its seas, the Royal Navy has the Fishery Protection Squadron, whose role is to monitor, inspect and inform fishermen of all nations in case of violation of the regulations, whether they fish in prohibited areas, use non-compliant nets or have an unsafe vessel. In extreme cases. This may also imply having to escort boats to port to be seized as well as referring the skippers to trial.

If relations with the EU were to break, it is likely that British boats could be seized in operations such as tit-for-tat (trad. "pan for focaccia", ed).

France and other European nations have their own navies and the ability to enforce what they would see as their national interest. The UK is no longer the ruler of the seas, and even if it were, a responsible nation would not be putting civilians at risk over a fishing dispute. Fishermen already have one of the work activities considered to be among the most difficult and dangerous, it would be madness to make them run the risk of operating in areas of conflict.

This dispute may have some parallels with the "Cod Wars", a longstanding dispute between Britain and Iceland over fishing grounds in the North Atlantic that flared up intermittently between the 50s and 70s. cod ”1975-76, the Royal Navy deployed up to 3 frigates at a time for a total of 22 frigates and supported, at each deployment, by an auxiliary ship.

These devices tried to stop Icelandic coastguard ships from cutting the nets of British fishing vessels. There have been several Icelandic ramming incidents with as many as 15 British frigates sustaining damage, but neither side has ever opened fire and no sailor has ever been seriously injured.

Despite having many more frigates than today, these clashes with Iceland have severely compromised the Royal Navy's ability to support its primary NATO tasks. Eventually, the UK was forced to back down, as the financial cost of operations and the impact on the fleet were not justifiable in relation to the income of the fishing industry, plus the fact that Iceland was and is a key partner of NATO.

Offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) are the main tool for fisheries protection and the Ministry of Defense states that from 1 January 2021, two patrol vessels will be deployed at sea, with two more in port ready for use. Probably the Series I OPVs of the class River HMS Tyne, HMS Mersey, HMS Severn together with the HMS Tamar belonging to the II Series of the same class. This patrol mission setup is sustainable and only marginally more robust than what has been consistently maintained over the past two decades. The United Kingdom's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is large and, as noted earlier, the Royal Navy does not have the number of units needed to effectively control it, although it is supported by aerial assets and satellite imagery. What can be relied on is the Royal Navy's expertise, professionalism in conducting operations and the ability to navigate the often stormy seas surrounding the UK.

The Royal Navy managed to save the 3 Series I OPVs of the class River from the sale in 2018, however, the 5 new OPV II Series form the "Overseas Patrol Squadron" and are intended to be deployed abroad to relieve the pressure on frigates and destroyers; HMS Forth is found employed in the Falklands, lo HMS Medway it's in the Caribbean and it HMS Trent has just returned to the UK from his second shift in the Mediterranean. The brand new HMS Spey, together withHMS Tamar, could be stored in UK waters. Essentially the Royal Navy has a strength of 5 or 6 OPVs to rely on at the moment, but only 2 or 3 are likely to be at sea at any one time. Additionally, Scotland controls its own waters and has three Marine Protection Vessels (MPVs) (MPV Minna, MPV Jura e MPV Hirta) and two Cessna Caravan II F-406 aircraft.

It is widely believed that Britain is simply reclaiming its fishing rights which it surrendered when it signed the Common European Fisheries Policy in 1970. Indeed, the policy has given EU states equal access to the common EEZ. Of course, as an island state, the UK has one of the largest EEZs and has been severely disadvantaged by the CFP. This has been a long-standing source of resentment against the EU for decades.

The CFP has some advantages, particularly in trying to conserve fish stocks and to ensure quality and labeling standards; much more controversial are the fixed quotas and the limits to the number of days that fishermen can spend at sea. Many British fishing communities have been decimated by the CFP and are affected by the presence of European boats fishing in UK waters. Objectively the UK has a wholly fair claim under established International Law that precedes any agreement with the EU to regain control of its waters, but the process requires very sensitive management. It has always been unrealistic to expect the EU to give up access to the British EEZ soon after Brexit as a long transition and reasonable give-and-take policy would be required, and many of the fish species caught by the British are not sold in the UK but exported to EU countries. Increasing controversy will likely see this market shrink more and more to total closure, making it more difficult to sell fish stocks or search for new markets outside of Europe. Protests and direct actions by French farmers and fishermen, reluctant even to obey the rules of their own government may not bode well for a peaceful solution.

The seafood sector is important but it is only a secondary aspect of the UK's much broader interests in Europe and around the world. In 2019 the British fishing industry accounted for 0,12% of GDP and analysts estimate that if British vessels had exclusive access to the EEZ it would amount to around 650.000 tonnes of additional fish caught each year, worth an estimated 400 millions of pounds while UK vessels would likely lose access to EU waters and around 90.000 tonnes of catch worth around £ 100 million.

The Royal Navy works closely with European navies within NATO, a key alliance to deter threats from increasingly aggressive adversaries. The idea of ​​Royal Navy warships comparing themselves to other NATO warships is sheer madness.

Brexit, despite a thousand obstacles, is proceeding. Stakeholders are working pragmatically for a win-win solution for all, including fishermen. Both sides had 4 years to make progress, while the EU frustrated the deserter to discourage other member states, British politicians have indulged in a chaotic circus of chauvinism and signaling of virtue.

In the end, hopefully, the fishing dispute will only be resolved at the negotiating table and not with an offshore exchange.

Photo: MoD UK / web