Fishing Goes to the Wire

30th October 2020 in Brexit

As negotiations between the UK and the EU on a future partnership agreement move into their final stages, the NFFO takes stock and reaffirms the fishing industry’s aims.

Fishing Goes to the Wire

Negotiations

The talks between the UK and the EU restarted this week and will move from London to Brussels and continue over this weekend into next week. This intensification is typical at this stage in bilateral negotiations. It is clear that fishing will be one of the final issues to resolve before an agreement can be signed. If an agreement can be signed.

Without a trade agreement, it is apparent that the economies of both sides will suffer but the EU, lacking any significant leverage on fisheries, has made an artificial linkage between a trade deal and a framework agreement on fisheries. It’s stance, put bluntly, is that the UK must surrender its rights as an independent coastal state, or there will be no trade deal. There is no sign that the UK is prepared to do this; not least as it would raise fundamental political questions about what the 2016 referendum was for. It would raise fundamental questions over sovereignty. The current impasse arises because of the EU’s reluctance to surrender the advantages that it has held over 40 years, during the period when the

UK was tied into the CFP. Specifically, the EU seeks to retain automatic access to fish in UK waters and quota shares made without reference to that fact that the lion’s share of the resources is located within the UK EEZ.

Independent Coastal State

The strength of the UK’s position is that:

  • Under international law, the UK has sovereign rights to harvest the fisheries resources within its own exclusive economic zone, and to control access over who may fish in those waters
  • It follows the international norm of how coastal states with shared stocks cooperate on the sustainable management of their fisheries. This point is made more potent because the EU’s fisheries relationship with Norway over 40 years has been based on the same principles. That the EU now seeks something different with the UK has been thrown into contrast by the UK’s recent signature of two fisheries agreements, with Norway and with the Faeroes Islands, which reflect the international norm.

The EU therefore finds itself not only with a greatly truncated area of marine jurisdiction, but its negotiation position is an outlier in terms of international precedents.

Fishing

Every news report on the negotiations in recent months has highlighted the prominence of the fishing issue. It now has an unprecedented visibility. In particular, it is widely understood across the political spectrum, and in the public at large, that the fishing industry was sacrificed in the 1970s, when the UK joined the EU. There is intense speculation over whether there will be a repeat at the end of the transition period. The UK Government has repeatedly stated that, unlike the 1970s, fishing will not be traded for any other objective in these negotiations.

The two national federations have worked hard to ensure that the fishing case is well understood and there is every sign that fishing is:

  • A political priority for the Prime Minister
  • A key objective for Chief Negotiator, David Frost
  • Understood and appreciated as a priority right across the cabinet, the governing party and across Parliament

In short, the UK Government understands and shares the NFFO’s objectives:

  • Access to fish in UK waters to be negotiated as part of annual fisheries agreements
  • Quota shares which reflect the resources located in UK waters
  • An exclusive 12-mile limit to protect our inshore fisheries
  • Freedom to develop a tailored UK fisheries management regime free from the constraints of the CFP
  • As frictionless trade with the EU as can be secured, without surrendering sovereignty over fishing rights

These will be the criteria against which any final agreement to emerge from the talks will be measured and judged.

No Deal

Only five member states out of twenty-seven benefit significantly from automatic access to fish in UK waters. There are signs both within the Commission and some of the more politically weighty member states, including Germany which currently holds the EU presidency, of a growing impatience that the fishing issue could deny the rest of the EU a trade agreement vital to their economies. If, however, the talks founder at the last hurdle, the fishing issue does not evaporate – it moves to a different forum – the coastal states negotiations for stand-alone fisheries agreements for 2021. These talks, held each November/December, are revving up on the sidelines. The annual agreements will set total allowable catches, along with quota shares, access arrangements and mutually agreed quota exchanges. In other words, the EU will face the same problems on fisheries, with or without a framework agreement: the need for access to fish in UK waters and pressure to move its position substantially on quota shares to secure that access.