No, the Channel isn’t going to erupt into naval warfare, and neither is the Prime Minister engaging in ‘gunboat diplomacy’ by deploying Royal Naval vessels to keep French fishing boats out of UK waters in the event of Brexit transitional arrangements ending on 31 December with no trade deal.
Yet that seems to be the view of Tobias Ellwood the Conservative chairman of the Defence Select Committee, who protested to the Today programme this morning: ‘This isn't Elizabethan times anymore, this is global Britain - we need to be raising the bar much higher than this.’ Actually – although it may be news to Mr Ellwood, even in his role holding the government to account over defence matters – it is not really a new deployment at all. Three of the ‘gunboats’ in question already patrol the Channel on 275 days a year, enforcing EU fisheries law. It is their job to ensure that quotas are not being exceeded, that the only fish allowed to be caught, and the only vessels allowed to catch them, are those sanctioned under EU fisheries policy. The only difference is that they will now be charged with a new duty as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU: enforcing Britain’s new independent fisheries policy, which will involve less access for foreign fishing boats.
Yes, the patrol boats do have guns – a facility not entirely unknown for Naval boats – but they have not been ordered to fire upon foreign fishing vessels. They are on standby and won’t, initially at least, be allowed to board them – that will require specific legislation enacted by Parliament. All they will really be able to do is to pull alongside and shout through a megaphone. Not exactly the Battle of Trafalgar.
The comments of Ellwood and others expose a prejudice on the part of many frustrated remainers who cannot get it out of their heads that Brexit was some mad, imperialist adventure of those who believe they can reconstruct the British Empire in all its glory. Matthew Parris expresses a similar view in the Times today, to the delight of the shattered fragments of the rearguard Remain campaign. Any piece of evidence will be twisted to fit this narrative. But if Boris Johnson’s government is imperialist to deploy Naval boats to enforce its fisheries policy, then the same was true of the EU, because, through its member states’ navies, it did exactly the same.
Maybe we should all relax a bit and accept that Britain’s departure from the EU – whether we voted for it or not – is going to involve our own government undertaking regulatory enforcement that was previously conducted at EU level.