Brexit: The view from Europe

Posted on 28/04/16 by Niels Wichmann

Niels Wichmann, CEO of the Danish Fishermen’s PO and Chairman of the North Sea Advisory Council offers his thoughts on Brexit

Being Danish, I won't have a vote in the UK referendum. That's right and proper because this is a decision for the British people alone.

However, I wouldn't like to see the UK leave the EU. Overall, I believe that the UK's membership is good for Europe and I think good for the UK.


I am particularly anxious in relation to the future of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). After years in which the CFP has been little better than a fiasco, things are getting onto the right track. The bottom line is that stocks are improving steadily and we are all poised to share the benefits. Here is leading Danish fisheries scientist, Eskild Kirkegaard, Chairman of the inter-governmental scientific body, ICES's Advisory Committee, talking about the North East Atlantic:

“For the majority of stocks, it has been observed that fishing mortality has decreased to a level consistent with Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) – meaning levels that are not only sustainable but will also deliver high long term yields." In other words we now have very healthy fish stocks.

Shared Stocks

The reality is that in Europe, most of the stocks we fish are shared. These are some of the most complex fisheries in the world: multi-gear, multi species and multi-jurisdiction. That won't change if the UK leaves the EU and my worry is that in the inevitably bruising process of negotiating a post-exit regime we will all slip backwards. The danger is that in fighting over the slices of the cake, the cake will fall off the table. That could lose us all the gains we have made since the anarchic 1990s.

Of course, if Britain was to leave the EU, new bilateral arrangements would be agreed - eventually. But this would take a great deal of time and effort, especially if there was any suggestion that we move away from the status quo on access arrangements or quota shares. In the meantime we all – Brits and non-Brits have a great deal to lose.

Regional Decision-making

The UK was a major influence in ensuring that CFP decision-making would have a strong regional dimension in the new reformed CFP. Member states cooperating at regional seas level is the antidote to the over-centralised CFP that we have battled with over that last 20 years. At last we have movement away from the prescriptive micro-management of our fisheries. It would be tragic if one of the major architects left the project before the benefits of decentralized decision-making have been fully realized.

No one can have any certainty about the post-Brexit world. Where fishing sits in the national priorities for each country will be a critical factor. I don't get the impression that fishing has an especially high priority in the UK, outside perhaps Scotland and Cornwall. Will the negotiating capital be made available for fishing when other prominent issues such as financial services in the City of London, immigration or even agriculture, is at stake? I don't know - but this will be a factor in whether the UK would be able to negotiate better terms than it currently holds.

Politicians will of course make promises. You have to evaluate whether those are realistic or pie -in the-sky. I have worked alongside many Britons over the last 25 years in trying to shape the CFP. We generally share the same values and the same objectives – sustainable, profitable fisheries for our members. It has taken many years to build up the trust and confidence that we have now. It would be terrible if we found ourselves again on different sides of the barricades.

Life after Brexit

Not everything in fisheries is the exclusive fault of the EU. British ministers were enthusiastic supporters for the introduction of the now-discredited EU cod plan which set us back a decade in putting the cod stocks on a sustainable footing and generated a new problem in the form of large scale discards of mature fish. Equally, Britain was a vocal supporter of the EU landings obligation and took its fair share the political opportunism that led to that misconceived legislation. Would things be very different for the UK industry outside the EU? I don't know the answer but if I had a vote these are the things that would be preying on my mind.