For my irreconcilable Remainer friends, there was difficult news this week. Significant progress was made towards exiting the EU on terms most of us could live with. We may not be doomed after all.
Progress should be neither oversold nor undersold and, of course, it has taken far too long. But it is surely time to work on the assumption that Brexit is going to happen rather than relying on some divine intervention to prevent it.
Let me recap. I voted Remain because, on balance, that is where the arguments were more persuasive and it would have saved us all a lot of trouble, energy and ever hearing again from Nigel Farage.
However, I have never seen Brexit as a cataclysmic prospect per se while portraying the EU as a paragon without which we could barely survive seems absurd. I have seen too many issues where the EU was the problem rather than the solution to entertain that delusion.
Amidst transient furores, I retained confidence that the real stuff of negotiation would be taking place as far from the limelight as possible, until there was something worth reporting. That is what we saw starting to emerge this week.
On most issues, mutual self-interest will propel us towards a destination not too far from where we are now. It will not be the ideal outcome for arch-Brexiteers or ultra-Remainers, but the final agreement will not be designed for the delectation of either faction, so much as the 60 per cent in between.
The UK accepting the right of migrants who arrive during transition to remain is positive. So too is the EU accepting the UK’s right to forge trade agreements with non-EU countries. So too is progress towards borderless trade, even if the mechanisms are still work in progress.
In Scotland, we heard little of any such positives on these critical issues. The only show in town was fishing. And fishing meant betrayal. And we all love betrayal. So fishing was the only show in town.
One can see the opportunistic appeal for the crank wing of Brexit dumping haddock in the Thames. Why Scottish Nationalists, thirled by their own rhetoric to the sacred cause of EU and Common Fisheries Policy membership, feel entitled to wail from the same song-sheet is more difficult to fathom – if you leave out the word “opportunistic”.
The fishing fuss puzzles me. Given there is to be a transition period, during which all sorts of difficult issues will be ironed out, why should fishing be exempt from that process? Did anyone expect that other EU states would have nothing to say about their residual interests in the subject?
And was delay in CFP withdrawal the only aspect of this week’s progress report that affects the fishing industry, far less other constituency interests of agitated MPs? Given the dependence of both catching and processing sectors on migrant labour, not to mention future access to EU markets, I wouldn’t have thought so.
It is the whole deal that will matter and treating the timing of CFP withdrawal as a stand-alone outrage is, at best, naïve. Nervous Tory MPs will learn that dancing to a single tune carries its own risk of being thrown overboard with the haddock when the time comes. Better to stress the positives – and remind grumpy constituents of the alternatives.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is in a hurry to get out the CFP but we are entitled to ask why. There is no realistic possibility of a sustainable catching regime being hammered out by September 2019. So would it be back to the “good old days” of unregulated catching power and the vast, short-term fortunes a free-for-all would trigger?
The term “Scottish fishing industry” is invariably misleading. It covers a wide range of sectoral and geographic interests, many in conflict with each other. At present, the powerful pelagic fishing companies of Shetland and the North-East are buying up licences and quotas at hugely inflated prices in expectation of a Brexit bonanza. Allowing that to happen unchecked would represent the true betrayal of other fishing communities.
Getting it right is far more important than getting it fast. There was a conference in the Western Isles recently to consider the huge opportunities which will exist for the fishing industry as a result of Brexit. However, none of them will come to pass unless the proper regulatory system is in place. As has happened in the past, the rich will inherit the sea.
When the UK joined the Common Market in 1973, 96 per cent of the Hebridean catch was demersal white fish and pelagic species. Today these fisheries scarcely exist because external vessels (both Scottish and EU) wiped them out. Virtually all the Hebridean catch is shellfish with EU countries as main markets. If Brexit is to bring benefits, a huge readjustment is required.
That needs to be based on a 12-mile limit managed locally with investment in onshore infrastructure and boats, allowing new fisheries, made possible by Brexit, to develop. None of that is going to happen if the “Scottish fishing industry” is simply given free rein in less than two years’ time. Transition is required domestically, quite apart from the wider negotiations.
From a West Coast perspective, the key issue is not timing but making sure a sympathetic regulatory regime is in place. It’s about ensuring that there are people to fill the jobs. It’s about clarifying whether “EU directives” were really responsible for decisions taken closer to home and what happens to them next. It all needs detailed planning and a lot of political debate between competing interests.
Similar arguments apply to other parts of the Scottish coastline where there is huge potential from Brexit – but no guarantees without the essential policy-making. The same relates to many other aspects of life outside the EU and the more time is wasted on complaining about the hypothesis, the less chance there is of making a success of the reality.
So let fishing become a metaphor – not for mindless talk about “betrayal” but for the acid test of whether Scotland is still capable of turning opportunity into something better, fairer and more valuable.