Fisheries, talks and deterrence

Update: We shall indeed have a fishie on a little dishie – and a lot more besides


Therefore the issue of fisheries has much wider political significance than the small percentage of UK GDP which fisheries represent. This is the wrong optic. The issue is fundamentally not economic at all. Just as the Falklands liberation was a deterrent signal to the Soviet Union (as Mrs Thatcher well understood), so fisheries protection is a signal to the European Union about what sort of nation we are. Accordingly the UK needs to prepare now to defend its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] by all necessary means so that any discussion about our sovereign maritime realm is conducted from a position of unambiguous strength. Si vis pacem, para bellum.

The EU Commission’s battle-plan: dance to your daddy my little laddie

The penny has not yet dropped in Brussels – and maybe it never will – that the tactic of aggregation, which worked so well with May, won’t work any longer. Barnier et al still plainly believe that it is by linking everything together that they can, with the subversive help of their chorus of irreconcilables in the British civil service and media, seek to trip up and to ensnare the UK now that we have formally left its clutches, so that Brexit visibly fails as much as possible: meaning at the least, that the UK gains no advantage. Why? Not least pour décourager les autres, also for revenge; but mainly in existential fear of the EU’s own fragility and risk of collapse.

The vortex of the post-Brexit political storm, now spinning towards the EU just like Ciara and Dennis and the other winter storms come spinning in out of the Atlantic, is simple to describe. The previous 35% Anglo-German-Dutch-Danish-Polish etc blocking minority vote in the EU Council has also disappeared with our departure. So the show-down between Germany and the northern bloc with France and the Club Med is now inevitable. Therefore, the collapse of the EU in its current form, whose dynamics I first described on Briefings for Brexit in May 2018, has come a big step closer since the General Election resumed normal service in British politics.

Any doubt that my description above is an exaggerated or incorrect summary of the EU’s aims, is dispelled in the powerpoint slide below. It is the EU’s summary of its desired outcome for what it now describes – and faithful Katya Adler echoes on the BBC – to be no longer a Free Trade but a ‘Trade and Security’ treaty. This is double-down time for Ms van der Leyen and M Barnier.

The slide below came into my hands on 26th January. It was used on Friday 24th, in Brussels, by the Barnier team to brief the ‘Twenty Seven’. Then, predictably, on 30th, and before any material matter had been discussed at all, Barnier suddenly played the familiar old sequencing game. He announced that he wanted a legal Association Agreement to tie everything to everything else to be agreed before substantive discussions began. Plus ça change.


legal Association Agreement


The EU’s three further demands are as impertinent and unusual in trade negotiations as they are to be expected in dealings with the EU: that the ECJ shall have jurisdiction in our land which just retrieved its sovereignty; that as well as meeting EU standards for our exports to this declining segment of our export market, EU ‘high alignment’ (aka ‘Level Playing Field’) and even ‘dynamic alignment’ on into the future shall be imposed by us – a third party independent state – upon all imports that we may choose to buy from anywhere else, as a condition of a trade agreement with the EU. How bizarre is that? And, thirdly, that we must grant massive EU access to our newly recovered fisheries as a sine qua non.

None of this is worthy of discussion and from the very start all must be rejected out of hand. Likewise the demand for a £1billion bung, insultingly lodged with us on exit day. The Foreign Secretary has stated that aggregation and alignment are not red lines for a negotiation: they are simply not even in the room. This was reassuring to hear. But then, on 3 February, speaking in an inspired choice of location, the Painted Hall at the once (and future?) Royal Naval College at Greenwich, under Thornhill’s great Baroque painting of William and Mary, aptly entitled “The Triumph of Liberty and Peace over Tyranny”, Boris delivered a Prime Ministerial speech of the sort that we have not heard in half a century or more. In it, he definitively ruled out ever entertaining any part of Barnier’s invitation to dance to our Brussels daddy. The dismissal came as the mere aside that it correctly is in his great paean in defence of free trade.  Simultaneously, Barnier set out his proposed mandate to be adopted at 20 February EU Council. A total mésentente. Perhaps there will be no talks at all?  But we nonetheless need to understand the Brussels way of thinking.

The Barnier Team’s diagram is remarkable for four reasons. First, it shows that the EU really does not yet understand that it is the demandeur in conversations henceforth. The UK holds the whip handle now. Second, it confirms the warnings that I and Sir Richard Dearlove have been issuing in recent months, warnings of the national security dangers that the UK faces from the accelerating “EU Defence Union”, now revealed as 50% of the EU demands, co-equal with economic matters. They are interested in a trade agreement hardly at all, because, third, it shows that the Free Trade Agreement (that ‘continuity remain’ in the BBC and other media bangs on about obsessively) is, for the EU, only one fraction – less than a tenth – of its overall ambitions. And fourth, FISH are capitalised not, one assumes, as the military acronym from urban warfare (Fighting In Someone’s House), but simply to show how important the EU intends to make the question of access to UK fisheries. As I’ll explain, if Boris does what he says that he’ll do – and that he must do and, I believe, will stick to – the EU is facing an 80% reduction of its fishing in British waters and enormous retrenchment in its fishing fleets.

You shall have a fishie when the boat comes in

In her lucid essay published by BfB, Catherine McBride explained the strong reasons to rebuff without compromise the EU’s attempt to link the entirely incommensurate issues of our control of our sovereign waters and their fish stocks with access to European financial markets. Any failure to hold that line would simply be politically disastrous for the One Nation government: for it would have betrayed the coastal communities in these islands all over again.

That point is reinforced, literally from the pilot house of his boat, by Alan Hastings, a skipper and a founder of Fishing for Leave. His is a clear and comprehensive article that ought to be mandatory reading for all members of the Cabinet and the Number Ten advisory staff. It was published in its valedictory series, as the BrexitCentral website bowed out on 31st January in a blaze of brilliance.

Hastings explains correctly and brutally that, “whether fishing is saved or surrendered will make or break the Conservatives in a host of coastal constituencies.” With equal force, he points to the unnecessary vulnerabilities still lying in Johnson’s Political Declaration – essentially unchanged in the fisheries area from the May text. These must be always in mind when weighing political promises to do something else.

The Painted Hall speech in effect supersedes the Political Declaration. It is part of the ‘B’ Word which the Prime Minister dispatched eloquently but, I suspect, prematurely, to the history books: for the words of the Political Declaration still lurk; and as long as they do, they stand as a temptation for mischief by Irreconcilables. Skipper Hastings’ analysis is so potent that I quote it verbatim:

Para. 73 [states] that the UK must “establish a new fisheries agreement on access to waters and quota shares…within the context of the overall economic partnership” – effectively linking fishing with trade, something the Government says it will not do… It says any fishing arrangement should based on “non-discrimination” (Para. 72) – the basic principle of equal access to a common resource. It sets up for a “level playing field” (Para. 21) to ensure regulatory alignment with EU rules. It also prohibits the curtailing of EU freedom of establishment (Para. 29), which has allowed EU-owned but UK-registered “Flagships” to predominate – where they now hold half of the meagre fishing opportunities the UK does get under the CFP. The Political Declaration also makes provision for the UK to be enmeshed in “associate” membership of EU policies (Para. 120) and may “establish specific governance arrangements” (Para. 118) to do so. We may not be in ‘the’ CFP, and may well in name be an independent coastal state (as every minister likes to emphasise), but if future arrangements see the UK hide-bound to mimic EU rules and continue unfettered equal access (as the EU clearly intends), then the Government can use what names and semantics it wants. If it walks like a CFP and quacks like a CFP, it is ‘a’ CFP, if not ‘the’ CFP.

Just as Sir Richard Dearlove and I have argued on the national security front that all adhesions to the EU Defence Union made in breach of the Scrutiny Reserve Act since November 2016 must be annulled, which could be done by a single Statutory Instrument, all these vulnerabilities must be struck out root and branch. They must be  replaced with simple protective language that conforms to the Prime Minister’s promise that “it would be a reprehensible thing to do” to allow our fisheries to be part of any discussions about the bare-bones FTA that we might wish to offer the EU. If, as ‘Caroline Bell’ remarks, the EU wishes to preserve its hugely valuable trade with the UK – another penny that hasn’t yet dropped –they are likely to have to pay “to sell into our single market, under our rules.”

As I observed in a recent article, the Correlation of Forces has shifted decisively in our favour and we are under no pressure to cede anything to the EU in discussions about the FTA, which it needs much more than we. The Painted Hall speech is plainly informed by the same assessment.

The political language is as encouraging as one could ask for. Boris has doubled down on his quoted observation. First, in the first “Peoples’ PMQ” of the new year, the PM stated in terms that he will not trade away UK fishing rights as happened in the 1970s (at minute 4). Then, the post Brexit Fisheries Bill was announced on 29 January and it is unequivocal in ending the Common Fisheries Policy at the end of the year. In the PM’s Written Statement to the Commons (HCWS86 of 3rd February 2020) it is established that any agreement must reflect the fact of Great Britain as an independent coastal state. But the wording—(Cl 2) “will consider a mechanism for co-operation on fisheries matters”—is troublingly vague; and a devil may be dancing in the detail of exactly how the right of EU vessels to fish without license within the 200 nm British EEZ will be removed. I will address this directly, and propose a fix, below. This Bill needs to be strengthened by MPs into a clear presumption of an absolute ban with only very specific exceptions, just as a different, older settlement applied to our fishing fleet in a history that we will revisit shortly.  What is sauce for Icelandic cod is sauce for British cod also.

The Bill replaces EU with UK funding support for fishing communities and gives a legal footing for sustainable fishing which will prohibit indiscriminate industrial fishing.

Much is welcome here; but like all the next steps, it will occur in the context of a British ‘deep state’ still basically hostile to Brexit, expecting and in some cases willing it to fail. Daily specific examples are coming to light. There is also a chronic and growing lack of high-grade legal and negotiating capacity in the civil service, exacerbated by ill-timed relocations of offices out of central London and loss of high quality staff in consequence, leaving the second-raters behind. These deficits must be remedied by hiring in external talent, especially as it becomes clearer after the Cabinet reshuffle that the Prime Minister may actually mean what he says!

Both the draft legislation and the strong and clear political promises, especially in the Painted Hall, serve to rebuff aggregation firmly and are therefore to be warmly welcomed and firmly supported. Nonetheless, battle lines are being drawn.  As already detailed, the EU will continue to seek to hook fishing into a host of other aggregated issues. France is authoritatively rumoured to be demanding a twenty-five year continuation of EU free access to British fisheries as an opening bid and French fishermen are already threatening to burn British boats as the conflict over Bailiwick waters around Guernsey has erupted since 2nd February.

In the Painted Hall speech, the Prime Minister said that “that British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats” whereas across the Channel, the same day, M Barnier stated, in laying out his terms of engagement, that a fishing agreement must “include in an inseparable manner (manière indissociable), continuous and reciprocal access to waters and markets” (accès continu et réciproque aux eaux et marchés).  Total loggerheads.

Therefore there is a material defence component here which, until this article, has not to my knowledge begun to be seriously considered. DEFRA adding two patrol boats and preparing to lease some more is welcome and necessary but, for the purposes of adequate deterrence, nowhere near sufficient as the rest of this essay will explain. This Government needs once more to be ready to defend our EEZ waters from trespass. How ready is it to do so? Ideally this reversion to normality ought to have started from dawn on 1 February 2020. However, unless the government position that we leave the CFP at the end of 2020 changes –and I agree with Alan Hastings that it should change, both for fisheries reasons and for the clarity of the signal that it would send to Brussels  –  unless the current position changes, which I advocate, this moment will come from the end of the transition period at the end of the year.  Advancing the date will depend on political will to make the essential practical and legal preparations, to which we now turn.

Prospects for EU fisheries after we leave the CFP

Whenever it comes, from the moment that the Common Fisheries Policy ceases to apply in British waters, there will be many desperate and angry French, Spanish, Dutch fishermen who have been used to finding one third of their North East Atlantic catches by taking 60% of the catch in UK national waters. Or to put in the terms in which it will be seen across the channel, currently EU access to British waters is worth five times British access to EU waters. So to do what the PM has said that he intends to do, it bears repetition to remind ourselves that this means that EU access needs to be cut by 80%. There is nothing unreasonable here. As vast consumers of claret, the British do not demand return of the inheritance of Eleanor of Aquitaine so that we may own the grape-vines.

After we joined the EEC it was the Fleetwood and Peterhead trawlers that were sent to the breaker’s yard. Now it will be the French, Spanish and Dutch vessels that will need to be scrapped. The ability under ‘freedom of establishment’ (PD cl 29) for EU owners to own UK registered boats must be extinguished, so that, as the Prime Minister stated in terms under Thornhill’s ceiling, British fishermen fish British waters; and the EU crews need to be employed or unemployed elsewhere.  This will not be popular.

With such a future on the horizon, are we sure that EU trawlers will meekly obey our law? Trawlers that have recently, maliciously (not to say insolently), been reported to have sailed deliberately through British crab and scallop grounds in South Western inshore waters, wrecking inshore fishermen’s gear and costing them thousands of pounds? I would not count on them not to challenge it.  In fact, absent sufficient deterrence, I would bet that they will.

Therefore, here is where Government needs to start quickly to join up the policy dots.  Successful deterrence from Day One demands a proper maritime presence plan, pending the neither negotiated nor negotiable ending of the totemic Common Fisheries Policy in British sovereign waters. Therefore a practical purpose of the rest of this article is, metaphorically, to beat to quarters.  Let us explore concrete details of what credible naval deterrence in this case needs to look like.

Naval deterrence for fisheries protection

The Home Station frigate, based in Portsmouth and always on notice to deploy, is really too big and not appropriately armed or equipped for constabulary fisheries protection purposes. After all we are not planning to sink trespassers with missiles, torpedoes or naval gunfire! Nor is a T23 ‘Duke’ class frigate built with a ram, like a Victorian ironclad, for rough and tumble. The 2050 sonar fitted in the bow dome is the Royal Navy’s primary hull mounted submarine detection system. It would not take kindly to ramming.  Similarly the relatively thin-skinned hull is more suited to speed than collision. But of course the virtue of a capable and powerful warship is that she can perform all sorts of missions – the famous Lesser Included Case; so a frigate is well capable of seeing off and giving a big trespassing trawler-processor a suitable shock with stand-off action, for example with her Royal Marine boarding party fast-roped from the ship’s helicopter or deployed in RIBs (Rigid Inflatable fast assault boats) as happened last summer with the arrest of the Iranian tanker GRACE, taken into Gibraltar.  But the lesson of HMS MONTROSE on station in the Gulf last summer, is that the cost of such a vessel being so high, there is usually only one at high readiness and it can only be in one place at one time. We do have more T23 frigates, and even bigger and more powerful T45 Air Defence destroyers, of course, but their time is spoken for and there are also awful problems with readiness, all of which is another story.

The right sort of ships for defending our coastal waters and 200 nm EEZ are smaller. So yes, the RN has just commissioned HMS FORTH (P222), the first of the moderately capable Batch 2 River Class of five modern Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) – meaning that for a bit more money they could have been made much more potent from the outset with a helicopter hanger for its Merlin capable flight deck (so that a helicopter could dwell on the ship); but they are nonetheless pretty handy. In addition, during his short and successful tenure as Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson announced the sensible decision that three of the lower specification Batch 1 OPVs would be kept on in service in anticipation of our leaving the EU.  HMSs MERSEY and TYNE were run on.  HMS SEVERN, which had been decommissioned in October 2017, was taken in hand in May 2019 for major refit prior to recommissioning shortly. So that makes eight.  Good answer, but no cigar, not quite, especially given the intention to deploy three of the vessels away from UK pending arrival of the Type 31 General Purpose Frigates. The actual ‘on call’ capability as I write is even less.

Therefore some creative thinking and spending is needed. For example, MoD could quickly do what countries like Brazil and Chile have been profiting by for decades through buying decommissioned RN ships. This specialist fleet could be augmented from the second-hand market. What might be coming up for sale? For example, the Royal Australian Navy’s 56 metre ‘Armidale’ class of fast ocean patrol vessels is designed for high sea-states (up to sea state 9) and for interceptor operations and is about to be replaced with a larger multi-role OCV (Ocean Combat Vessel) due into service from 2021. After mid-life refit which should extend their lives to 2022, the ’Armidale’ might be a good candidate for a close look (also used, incidentally, in a long-running and successful Australian naval TV soap drama, Sea Patrol, which I understand was effective for RAN recruiting…). The RAN runs its patrol fleet at high tempo, with multiple crews, thus maximising sea time for the ships. But buying in is not as quick as other ways of increasing capability. We return to the ‘Armidales’ again, below.

Also with longer lead time, we could order from close allies newly built as a UOR (Urgent Operational Requirement) some off the shelf vessels of proven design, for example the Australian successor Arafura OCV, the Dutch Damen Holland class OPV or, indeed, more Batch 2 River class.

An ARMIDALE Ocean Patrol Vessel passes Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge


An ARMIDALE Ocean Patrol Vessel passes Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge

More immediately,  we have other options.

First, we can improvise within the current RN fleet. The Royal Navy’s minesweeper fleet has a world-leading specialist ability in that role. The six Hunt class and seven Sandown class minehunters are normally fully engaged; but of course they are substantial ‘large small’ warships capable of constabulary and fisheries protection deterrence. Mine-sweepers and a mine layer (HMS APOLLO) were used during the ‘Cod Wars’ (1958-1976). The Sandown’s are home-ported in Scotland which positions them well for northern waters. Plans to pay them off to finance their successors might need to be reviewed to keep them running through the absolutely critical approaching ‘surge’ requirement (see below) and until permanently higher maintenance levels of force are procured, manned and deployed.

Then, going on down the roster, we could improvise a little more in the short term. There are in commission sixteen Archer class Fast Training Boats, principally attached to University Royal Naval Units. These boats are not usually armed but are White Ensign warships. Two are based in Faslane for security duties often escorting SSBNs (ballistic missile submarines). These ships mount GPMG machine guns and could be fitted with a 20mm cannon. They could take on inshore duties to release ships for offshore tasks.

We should add to our improvised order of battle the UK Border Force’s unarmed fleet of five large Cutters and eight Coastal Patrol Vessels for ‘presence’ and inspection roles. Add also that the Frigate & Destroyer force can and/or shortly will deploy UAV surveillance drones, usually has embarked Royal Marines and helicopters and RIBs, that the south western approaches can also be patrolled by Merlin helicopters based at RNAS Culdrose and that from 4th February 2020, when the first of its nine Poseidon MRA1 MPA (‘Pride of Moray’) commissioned into 120 Squadron at RAF Kinloss – eventually transferring to RAF Lossiemouth after the base completes its upgrade, the RAF will close the ‘capability gap’ in long range Maritime Patrol Aircraft that was opened by the cancellation and physical destruction of Nimrod MRA4 in the disastrously incoherent 2015 defence cuts. Covering the Northern Approaches, Russian hunter-killer submarines will be their normal prey; but marauding EU fishermen can also benefit from their attentions. Half the fleet of nine will be fully operational by the end of the year and the rest in 2021. Therefore there is a not negligible fleet and some vital, specialised airpower beginning to return to service for a modern version of the RAF’s Operation HELIOTROPE during the then ‘Cod Wars’.

However, the credibility of deterrence is not an absolute. It is always relative to other factors: of patrol area and the relative hostility of the sea and weather environment; of all possible opponents’ capability and will. With these in mind, what is easily to hand is not yet large enough in number nor, as yet, fully equipped to the level that credible deterrence demands: there are huge coastlines and sea-spaces to patrol and to protect and, potentially, highly capable opposing forces against which we need to scale our planning. Who have I in mind? Most immediately, the patrol fleet of around 65 ‘sovereignty vessels’ available to the French Navy’s Gendarmarie Maritime, backed up in full confrontation by the FAN (Force d’Action Navale).

There is a threat. In the standard formula, a Threat equals Capability plus Will.  The French have both. The benchmark threat against which our force provision should be scaled therefore resides with the French navy; and it is with it that France could challenge us in defence of its fishing fleet as we did the Icelanders during the three ‘Cod Wars’ between 1958 and 1976 in which the Icelanders successively and successfully pushed out their EEZ from 12 to 50 to 200 nautical miles. It is not beyond the realms of possibility, with the French in our former role and we as the Icelanders. To suggest this does not – of course – assume that the French Navy will be deployed to challenge our EEZ. It is simply to assert that it could be. If you plan for the worst case, you produce the best deterrent. Deterrence is like Threat: also Capability plus Will.

Therefore we need to present the French (or Spanish or anyone else minded to support fishing fleets challenging our EEZ) with a credible naval deterrent now, just in case; and it must be reinforced immediately in legislation (see below). If we do so successfully, then nothing will happen. Deterrence will work. On the other hand, if we are complacent and fail to prepare a credible deterrent, I would by no means rule out the possibility of confrontations. Therefore, let us revisit that largely forgotten and strange episode in the north Atlantic to see what lessons it might have for us now?

Lessons from the Anglo Icelandic ‘Cod Wars’ 1958 1976

Lessons from the Anglo-Icelandic ‘Cod Wars’ 1958-1976

The first ‘Cod War’ began in 1958 when Iceland unilaterally extended its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from 4 to 12 nm. The UK responded with Operation WHIPPET, providing warship escorts to British trawlers fishing within three ‘havens’ (‘Toffee-apple’, ‘Butterscotch’ and ‘Spearmint’) within the new 12 mile limit. There were confrontations, and collisions but not the levels of damage that were to be seen in later phases. The ‘war’ ended by mediation in 1961 when Iceland threatened to withdraw co-operation from NATO.

The second ‘Cod War’ broke out in September 1972 when Iceland extended its EEZ to 50 nm. The threat to British fisheries was becoming really severe. The cycle repeated but with increased vigour. In Operation DEWEY, the RN deployed more frigates than before, and Defence Tugs, including leased tugs, with more active rules of engagement, permitting warships to mark and ride-off the Icelandic Coastguard cutters. The reinforced Icelandic Coastguard trialled warp cutters and their use became a main feature of this second phase of the confrontation and thereafter. Between seventy and eighty trawls were cut during the second ‘cod war’.  There were collisions, but more accidental than deliberate ramming. A truce was brokered in October 1973 by Joseph Luns, Secretary-General of NATO, but was broken nine months later by the arrest and detention by the Icelanders within the 12 mile zone of one of the largest British stern trawlers, the C.S Forester, firing on it with non-explosive shells on 19 July 1974 to encourage it to surrender and be taken to be impounded at Reykjavik – which it did.

Responding to what was seen as an impertinent provocation, both the Wilson government and the RN leadership were, for different but convergent reasons, keen to overawe the Icelanders once and for all. The RN leadership had additional motivation, faced with defence cuts by Chancellor Denis Healey: it was keen to demonstrate the utility of its frigate force in its perennial battles with the Treasury.  During all episodes of the ‘Cod Wars’, the Icelanders handled their tiny Coast Guard force of OPVs with skill and aggression, cutting British trawler nets starting in the second ‘Cod War” 1972-73, ramming British warships – and being rammed in return – as the Third ‘Cod War’ escalated.

ICGV ODINN clashes with HMS SCYLLA shortly before a ramming incident

ICGV ODINN clashes with HMS SCYLLA shortly before a ramming incident

In February 1976, Iceland broke off diplomatic relations with the UK – an extraordinary turn of events between two NATO members. Matters had escalated into the third and most hard fought ‘Cod War’ for which the Royal Navy fitted HMSs JAGUAR and LINCOLN with wooden bow protectors, for ramming (although LINCOLN deployed too late to join the fight) and HMS BRIGHTON embarked an ‘anti-warp-cutter cutter’ which, in the event, was not a success.  The Icelandic Coast Guard force consisted of four OPVs and two armed trawlers. Against them, in total 22 British frigates were deployed, with seven supply ships and nine defence tugs. During the Third ‘Cod War’ there were 55 ramming incidents. During one, on 6 May 1976, a British frigate HMS FALMOUTH struck the Icelandic OPV ICGV TYR twice in one day, the second time broadside-on at speed, nearly capsizing her.

But the British miscalculated at each phase. The Icelanders held a trump card which they played when they threatened to close the strategically vital Keflavik air-base to NATO forces and to withdraw other vital Cold War cooperation across the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap. This led to a NATO mediated termination, with American approval of course, British withdrawal and the establishment in international maritime law of the concept of a 200 nm exclusive economic zone. As a face-saving gesture, Britain was licenced by Iceland for 30,000 tons of fish within the 200 nm EEZ. It was a happy defeat in a bizarre confrontation between NATO members. Nor was a 200 nm EEZ entirely unwelcome to the UK because North Sea oil and gas discoveries meant that under a 200 nm EEZ, these now fell unequivocally within British jurisdiction: much bigger fish to fry.

We are now in Iceland’s place: what do we lack at sea?

We are now in Iceland’s place viz à viz the EU fishing fleets. The thriving Icelandic fisheries within its 200 mile EEZ are a reminder not only of their wisdom in staying out of the EU, but also the good fortune that bullying British conduct accidentally helped established the principle of the 200 nm EEZ in international maritime law (UNCLOS3), from which we shall now benefit. This is the prize that our exit is about to give us. But we must plan actively to cherish and to protect it. A penny of deterrence is always worth more than a pound of confrontation. We need to be signalling that deterrence now.

What do we need that we do not have in place? Well first and foremost, we need to ensure that before, on and after exit day, Royal Marine Boarding parties are embarked and in place along the picket line across the EEZ boundaries for swift deployment by helicopter or RIB from enough ships capable of supporting them. They are the most flexible, safest and first weapon of choice in the sort of confrontations that might occur.

The Cod Wars then remind us that clearly all our patrol craft and tugs of sufficient size and power need to be equipped, trained and exercised to cut away trespassing EU trawler’s gear, as the Icelanders did to British trespassers with great effect. However, with modern awareness of the environmental impact of lost fishing gear, new kit needs to be able simultaneously to grapple and recover as well as to cut illegal gear, rather than let it foul the sea-bed. Although that might be easier said than done, technically. A design task for DSTL (the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory of the MoD).

In particular, the Cod Wars showed that ocean-going naval tugs need to be tasked to join the deterrent patrols because they possess both the power for gear-cutting and where necessary towing, and the structural strength for ramming.  The STATESMAN during the ‘Cod Wars’ was in fact a leased American ocean-going tug taken onto the British Register for diplomatic reasons. Some may be STUFT (Ships Taken Up From Trade); but further such specialised tugs could be hired from international salvage companies like Smit Tak. This is a Dutch firm, of course, but if the price is right, the Dutch have a long history of privateering, as do we!

The ‘surge period’

There are insufficient Border Force cutters and they are insufficiently equipped, even taking account of the DEFRA actions in February 2020.  Such vessels, along with OPVs, will be in the essential ‘surge deployment’ around implementation day when the naval deterrent signal needs to be well deployed and utterly clear. This surge period will be a visible build-up in deployment – on the necessary exercises to bring the force to full operational capability – starting some weeks or months before formal Exit Day as prescribed by the relevant Naval Command authorities, most probably FOST – Flag Officer Sea Training – the RN’s widely admired ‘gold standard’ organisation that works up ships and formations and is used by many other Navies as well to work up their ships.  The ‘surge’ force will be maintained for an unspecified period of some months thereafter until it is clear that there will be no trouble, at which point, the operation can be scaled back to a new, permanently higher maintenance level commensurate to the requirement of a 200 nm EEZ.

Therefore a spot of ‘lend-lease’ makes sense. There are three obvious candidates because they bring a valuable diplomatic signal of solidarity within our primary defence alliance – Five Eyes. Such ‘lend-lease’ would be a material embodiment both of the modern successor to “the anchors, cables, rudders, sails, oars, ensigns, powder barrels, sextants, the compasses and the grappling irons” that Boris described in The Painted Hall’s ceiling and of the reinvigorated Commonwealth which also figured prominently in that speech.

The UK government might seek to ‘dry lease’ some of the larger classes of US and/or Canadian Coastguard cutters for a period to cover the months before and after re-introduction of the UK 200 nm EEZ, running them with RN crews. That would be an echo of one of the worst-case contingencies in the event of loss of one of the British carriers during the Falklands War, when the USN would have lent us a medium aircraft carrier.

However, already mentioned, the Royal Australian Navy has special capability in long range surveillance and interception in high sea-states in its home waters. So perhaps a Division of four ships in the Patrol Force of ‘Armidale’ class ocean patrol craft now in commission might be ‘dry-leased’ for a six month attachment to the RN over the surge period? To all intents and purposes, the RN and RAN already act as one, and inter-operability is entirely routine. With preparation, the vessels, at 250 tons each, large but not that huge, could be shipped to Britain and in exchange, perhaps a British ‘Duke’ class frigate, with embarked Royal Marine boarding party, RIBs and helicopter, could be sent to help cover their duties off the northern coasts of Australia?  The RN would of course have the challenge of crewing these extra vessels; but surely this is why we have a Royal Naval Reserve? In any event, planning for such ‘lend/lease’ needs to be given suitable priority and taken in hand with all due dispatch. This too adds to the deterrent signal.

Such ‘lend/lease’ from Australia and/or Canada and the USA would be an unambiguous statement of Commonwealth solidarity and, in the first two cases, of repair to the rupture with, as the Prime Minister candidly put it, “old friends and partners – Australia, New Zealand, Canada – on whom we deliberately turned our backs in the early 1970s.”   In short, the RN and the MoD needs to be prepared to think laterally and boldly – starting now.

What do we lack in the Fisheries Bill 2020?

Yet we are still not done. Ships at sea are necessary but not sufficient. The deterrent has another essential facet which is not physical but legal. The Fisheries Bill 2020 has mild penalties for infringement but needs immediate amendment to include a schedule of more severe graduated penalties for infringement of the EEZ without a valid British fishing licence, to show potential trespassers what will happen to them if they misbehave. This can work rather like speeding penalties.  Here are some basic principles for Parliamentary draftsmen to refine.


  1. First infringement will lead to a formal warning.
  2. Second offence will lead to boarding and arrest, confiscation of catch, detainment in a British port and payment of an appropriate fine (perhaps scaled to size of ship; size of illicit catch; depth of penetration of the EEZ?).
  3. Third offence may lead to the cutting away of gear, arrest, impounding and possible confiscation of vessel.
  4. Fourth or habitual offenders will risk immediate arrest, boarding and confiscation.
  5. Any attempt at escape once intercepted fishing illegally within the British EEZ, or resistance at any point, or attack upon a British Constabulary vessel, will be countered by all necessary means, with graduated force from boarding up to and including ramming and the use of non-explosive shells (tactics employed to excellent effect by the Icelanders).


I think that a proper programme of immediate preparation of naval deterrence combined with the necessary amendments to the Fisheries Bill would probably prevent any unpleasantness. The Bill states that there will be annual rounds of evidence-based licencing, related to fish stock data. But I believe we should go further and licence EU trawlers on an individual basis. I am not just dreaming this up. On 2 February 2020, Independence Day Plus Two, with the special autonomous powers of a Channel Island, Guernsey, to much French indignation, closed Bailiwick waters temporarily to all French fishing boats, pending the establishment of a regimen for the issuance of individual licences in the near future. This provides a sensible early template for the whole EEZ regime.  I also suggest that a condition of a licence to fish in British waters should be the fitting of the maritime equivalent of a lorry tachometer: a ‘black box’ tamper-proof satellite tracker which shows position and also whether or not a vessel has gear extended (i.e. is fishing) that transmits data to HM Coastguard & Maritime Agency.

We are like the Icelanders: we too have trump cards

Yet there is a further obvious lesson for today in recollection of the “Cod Wars;” and it is an optimistic one. The Icelandic patrol boat captains did indeed put up a considerable fight, and produced localised deterrence which drove the UK to field much larger forces. But the principal cause of Britain’s three step defeat, phase by phase, was that Iceland’s central position in the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap with its sophisticated systems for detecting the passage of Soviet nuclear submarines, and the vital importance of Keflavik, gave the Icelanders a trump card, which they played and which won them the game.

We have trump cards now. As the more powerful party in conversations with a politically weak and economically lack-lustre EU that is entering existential crisis, we can successfully threaten the EU, just as the Icelanders did to us. For three years the EU has played the aggregation game against us. Now we should be prepared to return the compliment with a smile, as Boris did in Greenwich.

The Fisheries Bill should, in my view, advance to the earliest date practicable the suspension of the Common Fisheries policy in the UK 200nm EEZ. It should specify in the schedule of penalties for infringement that, in addition to the actions relating to individual miscreant EU vessels just sketched out, any infringement and most especially any attempt by “EUDU” (EU ‘Defence Union’) units to challenge the EEZ, will lead to immediate suspension of negotiation for preferential rights for any EU produce entering the UK market. So Italian cars, French cheese, German wine etc will be held hostage in earnest of good behaviour.

With the Painted Hall speech in hand, Mr Frost should tell M. Barnier as soon as they meet that there will be no, repeat no, negotiation of British exit from the CFP. It is not on the table for negotiation – nor any aggregation of it with any other issues. We will simply explain to the EU what we shall do. So there will be no point in trying to open discussion on the basis of the EU slide at the beginning of this essay. This has to happen because any British entertainment of any part of the EU approach will be eagerly seen as weakness and will encourage the EU to push on. This will induce much confected and some real rage, no doubt. More tea, cher ami?

I think that the strategy spelled out here should do the trick. Far better for all if we get what we want and no confrontations occur at all in so doing, because would-be miscreants are self-deterred. It is the job of properly prepared naval deterrence, back-stopped by a crystal- clear legal regime, to ensure this. It is, after all, the Royal Navy’s motto: si vis pacem para bellum: if you desire peace, prepare for war.

Devon, 17/2/2020

Gwythian Prins is Emeritus Research Professor, London School of Economics, and a specialist on security and defence.