Opinion Piece

9th October 2020 in Brexit, Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

Barrie Deas Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations Why the UK won’t back down on fisheries

Opinion Piece

Speculation is rife about a deal on fisheries that would unlock a wider UK/EU trade and partnership agreement.

The issue has now come down to the essentials: whether the EU will move a sufficient distance on quota shares that will allow the UK to grant a level of access to UK waters and to sign a deal. Both sides are politically committed to finding an agreement but the distance between the parties is vast. Conventional wisdom would suggest a split the difference approach could resolve the matter but that would be to miss the essential point.

Quantum and Principle

For the EU this about quantum – how much access their vessels will have to fish in UK waters and how much of their advantage on quota shares can be retained. For the UK it is about quantum too – but it is also about principle – and that is why I do not believe that the UK will back down on fisheries.

The principle involved is the UK’s unhampered ability to act as an independent coastal state in line with its rights and responsibilities under international law, after the end of the transition period. The UK government is acutely aware that it cannot surrender those rights without having to face the question from the people who voted to leave in the referendum: “What was Brexit for?”

Change is Coming

Undoubtedly, the change that will come – with or without a framework fisheries agreement - will involve a huge challenge for the EU fleets. The scale of that change is a reflection of the scale of the advantage that those fleets have had over 40 years, and to what extent the Common Fisheries Policy denied the UK the benefits of its status as an independent coastal state.

President Macron faces an uncomfortable political backwash ahead of an election year if he surrenders on fisheries; but the signs of fissures in the EU camp are already there - in comments made in Berlin - and in rising tensions between the Commission and the five member states who benefit from the current arrangements. The rhetoric is still there but the fishing five are increasingly isolated.

Litmus test

There is a reason that the UK Prime Minister, in his recent call with Commission, underlined the importance of fishing. It is because fishing is an immediate litmus test for Brexit. What Brexit means for the UK’s trade relations with the EU and with the rest of the world won’t be fully known for years – if not decades. We will know, however, if there has been a good or bad deal, or no-deal, on fisheries by the end of this year. Fishing has a political immediacy. It also goes to the heart of the vision of the UK as an independent country outside the EU. That is why I do not believe that we will see a repeat of the 1970s when fishing was considered expendable.

Everything is still in play. The talks continue, and as long as they do, people will speculate.

The NFFO and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation have made clear what they would consider an acceptable deal with the EU. The final outcome, if there is to be an agreement, will be judged against those criteria and against the fisheries agreement recently signed between the UK and Norway – a model of how two coastal states should cooperate together on the sustainable management of shared stocks.