Paris Gourtsoyannis: Tough Brexit talk on fishing is the one that got away

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Fishing is turning out to be the ‘fisherman’s tale’ of Brexit. Full of drama and daring in the telling, but little of substance on dry land.

By telling fishy tales, Brexiteers have rewarded the Scottish Conservative MPs for saving Theresa May’s political life by pushing them overboard.

Fishing has mythical importance to Brexiteers, who exploited its powerful betrayal narrative. Brussels’ flawed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) forced British fishermen to scrap boats, throw back catches, and open up British waters to foreign competitors. If Brexit was a vote to take control of the UK’s laws, borders and money, it was also a vote to take control of its seas.

Fishing represents one of the few areas where the UK has a clear advantage in talks with the EU. It is a tiny part of the UK economy, but has much greater value to the EU side, something so clear to Whitehall that it was plotted on a graph in the government’s Brexit analysis. One of Germany’s biggest fish-processing plants is in Angela Merkel’s constituency.

This meant the UK had a great bargaining position, but the Government decided to use this to make a deal. Michael Gove promised a speedy exit from the CFP, but the UK wanted too many other things from the EU to fight for it. The announcement that the UK will stay bound by CFP quotas through a post-Brexit transition was always coming in on the tide.

May needs fishing votes as much as Merkel, but the constituencies where they count are in Ruth Davidson’s backyard. Scottish Tories are furious about the transition terms on fishing, but there is little they can do.

Davidson and industry leaders want guarantees that fishermen won’t be let down again in the final Brexit deal, but a vote on that could come before talks on future EU fishing access. When Davidson and Gove co-authored an article on fishing two weeks ago, it was seen as a power play. In fact, it was probably softening up the ground for yesterday’s announcement. The lesson is: don’t believe stories about the one that got away.