Michael Gove said Britain is prepared to do “whatever is required” to support its fishermen post-Brexit, amid calls to board EU vessels if export barriers remain.
His comments come as Brexiter Kate Hoey said: “No one is speaking up for Northern Ireland.” She said the Northern Ireland Protocol “has to be looked at” as it is causing “huge delays” to deliveries travelling to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Unionists have accused the EU of not listening to those flagging up concerns about post-Brexit Irish Sea trading arrangements.
The DUP’s Westminster leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, criticised the European Commission after it called on the UK Government to take urgent action to fully and faithfully implement the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
Gove said: “I am a convinced unionist, I do believe in the strength of the United Kingdom, all of us working together, and I look forward to working with him and all representatives from Northern Ireland to ensure our United Kingdom can flourish in the future.”
The Cabinet Office minister acknowledged there are “bureaucratic obstacles” to negotiate and navigate with Brussels, as he was pressed to support “retaliation” against member state vessels given the current difficulties experienced by the British industry.
Conservative MPs were among those raising concerns over extra paperwork and additional costs faced by UK fishermen despite a free trade agreement with the EU.
Mr Gove also used Cabinet Office questions to announce a £20 million Brexit support fund to help small and medium-sized businesses “adjust to new customs rules of origin and VAT rules” when trading with the EU.
Speaking in the Commons, Conservative MP Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) said: “Fishing exporters in my constituency are having problems exporting to the EU.
“We signed a deal that said we could export to the EU.
“What action is (Mr Gove) taking to ensure these exports happen without hindrance and will he start boarding EU vessels in retaliation if we still see this obstructive action on the part of the European Union?”
Mr Gove responded: “What we do need to do is make sure that any bureaucratic obstructions which individual EU member states may still be applying are lifted and of course as I mentioned… we
will reserve our rights as an independent coastal state to do whatever is required in order to make sure that our fishermen are backed up every step of the way.”
Conservative MP Lia Nici (Great Grimsby) said: “Grimsby fish exporters are reporting to me that despite the EU agreement for free trade, French ports are introducing additional paperwork and extra costs. They’re even insisting that we hire EU nationals to do that additional work.
“Will (Mr Gove) take this matter up so that we can make sure the people of the EU continue to enjoy the highest quality seafood in Europe processed in Great Grimsby?”
Mr Gove responded: “Well, (Ms Nici) is absolutely right, the highest quality seafood in the whole of Europe is produced in Great Grimsby, indeed I remember my dad when he ran a fish processing business sending some of the fish that he bought at Aberdeen fish market to Grimsby for subsequent processing and it was enjoyed on tables across Europe.
“And she’s absolutely right that there are still some bureaucratic obstacles that we need to negotiate and navigate.
“We have set up a specific seafood exports working group which meets twice weekly and we’re also engaging with our friends in France in order to make sure they can continue to enjoy Great Grimsby fish.”
For Labour, shadow Cabinet Office minister Jack Dromey urged Mr Gove to apologise for the disruption “inflicted” upon British businesses.
The DUP’s Ian Paisley (North Antrim) warned: “(Mr Gove) boasts of his unionist credentials, indeed he even boasted once in my local paper that he could sing the Sash.
“Today he has the chance to protect the union in his meeting with (European Commission vice president) Maros Sefcovic.
“Will he make clear that the Protocol is causing societal and economic damage to the union, and will he press on with the alternative arrangements that he previously supported and signed up to?”