The Prime Minister Spells It Out

5th March 2018 in Brexit, Europe / Common Fisheries Policy

On the cusp of the next and crucial round of negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU, the Prime Minister has spelt out the UK position on fisheries. Within the context of what is being regarded generally as a thoughtful and conciliatory speech on the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU, the Prime Minister said on fisheries:

The Prime Minister Spells It Out

"We are also leaving the Common Fisheries Policy."

"The UK will regain control over our domestic fisheries management rules and access to our waters."

"But as part of our economic partnership we will want to continue to work together to manage shared stocks in a sustainable way and to agree reciprocal access to waters and a fairer allocation of fishing opportunities for the UK fishing industry."

Prime Minister Theresa May, Mansion House Speech, 2nd March 2018

Link to the Prime Ministers speech here

This carefully crafted statement reflects a number of strands within the UK government thinking on fisheries which bear scrutiny.

The first is the wide recognition, across the political and media landscape, that the UK fishing industry was sacrificed in 1973, when the UK joined the EC Common Market. The UK’s departure from the EU provides an opportunity to revisit that historic betrayal and put things right. There is a large and influential political constituency across the UK which wants this dealt with as a priority matter. The symbolism is important. If things can’t be put right on fishing, what assurance can there be that the rest of Brexit can be made a success?

The second is that as the UK leaves the EU it, by default, leaves the Common Fisheries Policy. The UK will, after March 2019, be bound by and operate within the United Nations Law of the Sea, rather than the CFP. International law accords responsibility for fisheries management within a 200mile exclusive economic zone, to the adjacent coastal state. Access to fish in that that zone is determine by the coastal state, subject to a number of qualifications. The UK will have the legal status of an independent coastal state.

Sensible and effective management of shared fish stocks requires cooperation. Cooperation on trans-boundary stocks is also a requirement under international law. Furthermore, as part of the Government’s desire for a close economic relationship with the EU, it will want to work closely with the EU in this area – but on a different basis than when the UK was part of the EU. Elsewhere, the Government has made clear that after March 2019, it will sit as an independent coastal state in negotiations for international fisheries agreements, including those with the EU.

The 4:1 imbalance in the value of fish taken by EU27 fleets in UK waters as against fish caught by UK vessels in EU waters, lies at the heart of the Prime Minister’s reference to a fairer allocation of fishing opportunities to the UK fishing industry. The most extreme example of a lack of fairness in quota allocation is the UK’s share of Channel cod (9%) as against France’s share,( 84%).

The use of the word reciprocal in the speech is important. The Prime Minister is saying that EU vessels, post-Brexit, will be certainly be allowed access to fish in UK waters. The level of that access and the conditions that apply will, however, be based on reciprocity – in other words, mutual benefit. The current EU/Norway annual fisheries agreement is an example of a reciprocal agreement. In annual negotiations, the benefit to each party is carefully calibrated to balance. The current 4:1 ratio between the EU and the UK is not a balance.

Elsewhere in the speech there are several references to the UK’s intention to initially mirror parts of EU legislation in its own law, where this makes sense, to smooth the way to a fully functioning and close trading relationship with the EU. In the first instance significant parts of the CFP regulation will be retained in UK law, through the Withdrawal Bill, to be retained, modified or deleted at a later stage. The long awaited, but apparently imminent, Government white paper on fisheries should provide us with an indication on what is on the Government’s mind to keep and what it wants to alter and how it intends to do that.

The fundamental point is that it will be the UK’s choice about what to keep and what to remove. Unless something goes disastrously wrong in the negotiations, the UK will not have tied itself into a CFP replicant by accepting the acquis communitaire, as the Commission and the EU27 would like.

EU and UK Positions

The opening EU and UK positions ahead of the crucial negotiations on a transitional period are now clearly drawn, at least insofar as fisheries is concerned. The aim is to complete this part of the negotiations within March and to use the period between the end of March and October to negotiate the broad shape of a future long-term economic relationship between the UK and the EU.

There is a huge gulf between the positions. There is agreement on the broad principles of fisheries management but little else. If the UK were to accept the EU’s terms for a transitional period, it would have thrown away the only chance in a generation to address the wrong turning of 1973. It would have thrown away the chance to be and to act like an independent coastal state, with all that follows from that. It would have agreed to tie the UK into a subservient relationship, much worse than we currently have. It would have thrown away the strong hand of cards that the UK holds on fisheries.

There is no sign in any part of government, from Prime Minister down, that the UK will do that.


On trade, the UK’s approach is to mirror EU arrangements as closely as possible, with divergence only in specific areas where this is important for practical reasons, or to meet the expectations set up during the referendum.

Secretary of State

The Federation is working intensively to ensure that the UK’s departure from the CFP is clear-cut and meaningful. We are due to meet shortly with Secretary of State Michael Gove to underline our key objectives.