The Environment Secretary said the UK had a “strong hand” and claimed that Germany and other EU countries without a strong interest in access to British waters would prevent France from derailing trade talks over the issue.
He confirmed that the Government had increased its fleet of patrol vessels to monitor UK waters and officials played down the impact of a possible blockade of French ports by the country’s trawlers if they saw their access to British fishing grounds restricted.
Mr Eustice said the UK was seeking an arrangement with the EU similar to Norway’s, with annual negotiations based on the scientific evidence on fish stocks, but possibly a multi-year framework on access.
But if no deal could be reached by the end of June, the deadline set out as part of the Brexit divorce deal, then the UK will rely on its automatic status as an independent coastal state from January 1, 2021 to determine access arrangements.
Mr Eustice said he was “optimistic” about reaching a partnership agreement.
But he told a Lords committee: “If it were the case that a partnership agreement couldn’t be concluded by July then it would be, under international law, the case in any event that we would become an independent coastal state and we would automatically take back control of our exclusive economic zone and that there would be an obligation on both us and the European Union to work towards a sensible annual negotiation at the end of this year.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants to ensure “that British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats”.
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