Brexit: Scottish independence does not provide a route back to the EU – Christine Jardine MP

I was determined to buy fish this week. Fresh fish.
Boats tied up at Tarbert Harbour as much of the Scottish fleet is forced to stop fishing because of problems sending exports to the EU after Brexit (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Boats tied up at Tarbert Harbour as much of the Scottish fleet is forced to stop fishing because of problems sending exports to the EU after Brexit (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Boats tied up at Tarbert Harbour as much of the Scottish fleet is forced to stop fishing because of problems sending exports to the EU after Brexit (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I pestered the neighbours on our WhatsApp group to find out if the fish van had arrived and, when I missed him, I headed to the shops.

My motivation? If ever there was a time when the fishing industry needed our support, it is now.

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At a time when every sector of our economy is under pressure from Covid-19, our fishermen now find themselves facing a second, equally massive challenge.

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Even those who have resented their apparent political power in the past must surely recognise now that our fishermen have been sold down the river.

They are also not alone. They are not the only food sector, or even industry which is already finding the reality of Brexit a world apart from what they were promised, but this new crisis in which they are enmeshed illustrates the situation in which we are all caught.

To be clear this is not some late attempt to turn back the tide and scrap the Withdrawal Agreement, but rather to recognise the new weeds in which we are tangled.

And these ones are not only home grown, but created by the same people who promised our fishing fleet a “sea of opportunities” when Brexit was done.

The headlines now tell a different tale – “Will Brexit end up sinking the Scottish fishing industry” and “You misled us over Brexit deal, angry fishermen tell Johnson”. I could go on.

But the facts are that the deal is signed and the only things the fishermen find they have a sea of is red tape and ministers passing the buck from Holyrood to London to Brussels and back.

Meanwhile the supply chain is facing immense disruption, fish are rotting and orders are being lost because they cannot be delivered to customers on the continent.

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And it is the b word, bureaucracy this time, which has created obstacles of titanic proportions.

Navigating this new ocean of red tape with its vast amount of complex paperwork from systems that only went live on 29 December to get to the continent via Kent is beyond challenging.

That is if produce can actually get to Kent because if the paperwork in Larkhall has got the wrong customs code, then everything else is immaterial.

Even that however is not the thing that really shocked me. Outrageous though it seems Scottish vessels are now changing their operations so they can land their catch in Denmark.

Despite the three-day round trip it is worth it, they believe, to avoid the very real risk of product landed here failing to get to market at all.

Of course while that solves one problem it hurts the processors and damages everyone in the supply chain at home.

It is also only the tip of the iceberg. The new system of sharing the seas leaves the UK with less cod to catch in this year, not more. It’s easy to anticipate the knock-on effect for everyone down the line.

During the Brexit referendum campaign, and in the years since, the government frequently held up the fishing industry as the epitome of what they were trying to do. Take back control, have sovereignty over our waters.

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But now that they have served their purpose our fishing and our processing sectors find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place while the ministers in whom they put their faith still seem intent on using them as a political football.

The UK government offers platitudes about everything being fine once the teething troubles are ironed out.

The Scottish government leaps in with the obligatory: “Oh we would do a better job if we were independent.”

Putting aside my natural aversion to nationalism I still have to ask: How? And what about the inherent contradiction between your policy and what our fishermen have always called for?

Brexit mark two, which is what independence would create, with all the same dislocation, uncertainty for business and division and acrimony in society would, the SNP falsely but insistently claim, take us back into the EU.

Have they not listened to what the fishing industry, in constituencies which many of them represent, have to say?

There is no sector which had as challenging a relationship with the EU as our fishermen did.

As a young reporter in Aberdeen, I was inordinately proud of the fact that I understood the Common Fisheries Policy. Well, almost understood it.

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If there was a political version of the offside rule, that was it.

As someone who campaigned hard and ultimately unsuccessfully to stay in the EU, I would have to be honest and say that I cannot see the fishermen buying the SNP argument of just going back.

The common fisheries policy was flawed. As a leading EU member I believed we could reform it to our benefit.

I can see no prospect now of the EU meeting the demands of an upstart applicant who does not meet the criteria laid down for membership. No. That ship, sadly, has sailed

As an MP I see the all-too-evident shortcomings in the deal and the challenges it presents to so many industries, and our economy in general.

But we have to be straight with people. The SNP should be too.

There is no silver bullet for this. No way of simply saying to the EU that we never really wanted to leave can we just come back?

What we need now is a needle-sharp focus on getting the economy and our fishermen out of this mess into clear, profitable waters.

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Christine Jardine is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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