We must not lose our voice in EU fishing policy

Posted on 13/05/16 by Elizabeth Truss

Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and MP for South West Norfolk, explains why she believes British fishermen are better off inside the EU.

I firmly believe UK fishermen are better off inside the EU. Our EU membership brings many important benefits: easy access to the world's largest single market of 500 million consumers, the right to fish in the waters of other member states, and the collective bargaining power to negotiate access rights with the wider world - as well the power to influence fishing policy across the continent.

Access to waters and quotas

The UK has only 13% of the EU's total sea area, but we are allocated 30% of the EU's total quota (1). It's wishful thinking that outside of the EU we can get a better deal for our fishermen. We fish not just in our own waters, but those of other EU Member States, including Ireland, Germany, France and the Netherlands, with catches worth about £100 million each year.

Leaving the EU means renegotiating reciprocal access and quota for fish stocks in all waters where we currently fish beyond the UK coastal zone. If we lose the collective bargaining power of the EU, we would be hard-pressed to get agreements as favourable as those we currently enjoy with third countries like Norway, Iceland, Russia, the Faroe Islands and Greenland. This year, EU-negotiated deals with Norway and the Faroes are worth £23 million to the UK.

As well as agreeing access to waters with such countries, we would need to negotiate with the EU itself - and to secure access, we would still have to comply with EU restrictions we would no longer have a say in developing.

Even more fundamentally, the UK would not have automatic and immediate freedom to control all our own waters if we left the EU. We would still need to meet our obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement on the management of migratory shared stocks - and continue to recognise the historic rights of some Member States to fish in certain UK waters, including within our coastal zone.

Trade and market access

Negotiations with the EU about access to waters and quota would inevitably be linked to negotiations about the terms of access for UK exports to the EU market. The EU is by far our biggest export market; in 2014, exports of fish and fish products to the EU were worth £1.01 billion, almost double the £550 million sold to all other countries combined (2). We run a net trade surplus with the EU in fish and fish products, with exports worth £160 million more than imports.

Leaving the EU would risk access to this market. Instead of the easy, tariff free access to the single market we currently have, we would be reliant on negotiating a new deal that would take years, with no guarantee of a better outcome. Countries outside the EU don't enjoy the same levels of access to the lucrative EU market - Norway still pays tariffs on products such as frozen crabs and fresh salmon, while Canada's deal took seven years to negotiate and has not yet come into effect. Time lost negotiating costs money: paying WTO tariffs on fish and shellfish exports while we hammer out a deal with the EU could lose our fishing industry up to £100m per year (3).

UK-led reform of the CFP

We have achieved real benefits for our fishermen with UK-led reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, ending the wasteful practice of discarding, giving power back to Member States and fishermen through regional fisheries management, and securing a legal commitment to fish sustainably.

I know the CFP hasn't always suited us in the UK - and that's why we used our seat at the table to secure these EU-wide reforms. We led the shift towards more regional decision-making, bringing management of our iconic fisheries back to the UK so we can implement the discard ban in the way that best suits each region. Inside the EU, we are driving up standards and putting all 28 countries on a level playing field.

Almost all the stocks we fish migrate across national boundaries, so we need to manage them as a shared resource. EU policies on sustainable fishing have already paid off for our fishermen—tough, UK-led decisions to recover stocks have allowed significant quota increases this year in vital species like cod and haddock in the North Sea and plaice in the English Channel.

We are also benefitting from £190m under the new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, the bulk of which will be used to support fishermen

A force for good sense

The UK is a force for good sense in the EU, securing the reforms needed for sustainable stocks and a prosperous UK fishing industry. Our task now is to build on these achievements to secure the future of our fishing industry, empowered by the new scope for regional decisions—not to run and hide just as we have gained a hard-won reform. I want us to see through negotiations for regional plans and simpler regulations, ensure stocks recover even further, and enable our fishermen to benefit from the justified quota uplifts we will keep fighting for under the reformed CFP.

Leaving the EU would have a huge opportunity cost for our fishermen. Just when we should be focused on building a world-class, productive and sustainable industry, we risk being diverted into long years of avoidable, inter-governmental negotiations—a massive waste of time with a very uncertain outcome.

By staying in the game, we can keep selling our world-beating seafood to half a billion consumers tariff-free, keep fishing in waters outside our own, and keep influencing policy across the continent to ensure this vital industry keeps thriving for generations to come.

See some facts and figures from DEFRA here.

(1) - http://theconversation.com/fact-check-is-80-of-uk-fish-given-away-to-the-rest-of-europe-39966

(2) - MMO statistics: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/462753/UK_Sea_Fisheries_Statistics_2014_-_online_version.pdf

(3) - Defra Analysis of EU WTO MFN tariff rates. Assumes no change in export volumes following tariff imposition.