The legal and political realities confronting the EU on fishing have been finally…
Fishing Centre Stage in EU Negotiations
Negotiations with the EU have bounced back centre stage, as time to reach an agreement of the UK’s future relationship with the EU runs out. Both parties have said that mid-October is the latest point that a deal could be signed in time for the ratification procedures to take place before the end of the transition period on 31st December.
Fishing, along with even playing field issues have been reported as two of the remaining sticking points. The impasse on fishing was inevitable from the outset because the EU artificially linked a trade agreement to the status quo on automatic access for its fleets to fish in UK waters, and maintaining quota shares which are far short of the UK’s right under international law. It is not difficult to see why they have done this. Leaving the EU automatically gives the UK the legal status of a coastal state, with the rights and responsibilities that comes with that status. In these new legal circumstances, the EU has no other leverage to keep the UK tied into the arrangements which have worked to its advantage – and the UK’s disadvantage - for 40 years.
Given the economic damage that a no deal would inflict on both sides, both sides are politically committed to finding agreement. The UK Government is, however, acutely aware that fishing was sold out in the 1970s. Across Parliament and across the country, fishing is a kind of litmus test for Brexit. Without a departure from the EU acceptable to the fishing industry, the Government cannot sign an agreement without breaching repeated and explicit commitments that have been given by the Prime Minister and the cabinet as a whole. The intention to rebuild coastal communities, mentioned so often last week as the Fisheries Bill passes through Parliament, will not be achievable without the additional fishing opportunities that would follow liberation from the Common Fisheries Policy.
Cautioned by the experience of the 1970s, for two years now the NFFO’s Fishing: No Sell-Out flags have flown from the masts of fishing vessels large and small. Nothing in anything said by the UK Government to the fishing industry would indicate that it is about to surrender on fishing. The opposite in fact. Privately and publicly the UK Government has said that it is prepared to walk away from an agreement unless it reflects the UK’s sovereign rights as an independent coastal state.
It bears repeating that what the UK industry and government seek is nothing extraordinary. It is only what every other coastal state in the world – Norway, Iceland, Faroes, or Canada and the United States for that matter - holds by right. It is only the scale of the imbalanced distortion caused by the Common Fisheries Policy over the last 40 years that makes the change seem so large.
On the EU side, those member states with significant commercial fisheries have worked hard to ensure that the EU negotiating mandate allows for no change in access arrangements or quota shares.
So, as we enter the final stretch of the negotiations, the stakes are high. Preparations are under way on both sides for a no-deal. This would mean trade with the EU on WTO terms - unfavourable for all parties but very far from no trade. On fishing, with or without a fisheries framework agreement, talks with the EU and other coastal states will begin this autumn on a stand-alone fisheries agreement for 2021. These will aim to set total allowable catches, access arrangements and quota shares. Without an annual agreement - following the well-established precedent between EU and Norway - there would be no reciprocal access to each other’s waters from 1st January. EU fleets fish around six times as much in UK waters as UK fleets fish in EU waters and so, at that point, the pressure would then be on the EU to make concessions on quota shares to secure access for its fleets.
The question is whether an agreement on fisheries that respects the UK’s new status as an independent coastal state can be signed before things get to that stage.