Until now, it’s been easy to dismiss the debate over fishing after Brexit as a parochial one.
The industry makes up less than half a percent of UK GDP. Fishing interests are concentrated in a small number of communities, so the issue is wrapped up in retail politics. Because fishing disproportionately affects Scotland – six of the ten biggest ports for fish landings are north of the Border – any discussion has long since been colonised by the bigger constitutional debate. The UK was barely in the door of the EU when that happened.
Well, fishing isn’t a local issue anymore. It’s not even merely a national concern.
In fact, fishing is set to become the UK’s first international trade row of the post-Brexit era.
Emmanuel Macron’s reasons for making it so might have little to do with fishing. The French President is confronting his toughest ever challenge as he tries to face down protesters causing chaos over a hike in fuel taxes. The demonstrations have turned deadly, and Macron may have tried to write a few headlines about a tough stand in Brussels in a vain attempt to distract from the anger of the ‘gilet jaune’ protests.
Whatever his reasons, it was clear Macron was intent on making waves over fishing from the moment he turned up in Brussels for the EU Council summit. He used his TV clip on arrival to thank Michel Barnier for ensuring “reciprocal access” to fishing waters was part of the withdrawal deal and pledged that French fishermen would be “well defended” in trade talks to come.
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He wasn’t alone: Denmark, Germany Belgium, Ireland and Spain all have a stake in ensuring their fishing fleets can continue to access the UK’s waters after Brexit, and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reflected that in his own comments.
“We have a big interest here, but also so does the UK to maintain market access to the EU for products coming out of UK waters,” he said, trying to sell the UK on something it really doesn’t want to do. The strength of that coalition was reflected in the minutes of the discussion the EU27 held before Theresa May came in the room: that a UK-EU fishing deal “should be built on... existing reciprocal access and quota shares”.
In the concluding press conference a few hours later, Macron was asked what kind of leverage he had to make that happen. The French President pushed the red button and sent a Trident nuclear weapon shooting out of the waters of the North Sea: if that fisheries deal isn’t done by the time the transition period ends, the EU will trigger the backstop intended to prevent a hard border in Ireland. The effect would be to keep the UK stuck in the customs union against its will.
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“I can’t imagine that the desire of Theresa May or her supporters is to remain for the long term in a customs union,” Macron said himself, barely disguising the threat and ruthlessly making it about the Prime Minister’s own political position. Because, unlike the withdrawal agreement, a trade deal must be approved unanimously, Macron has that leverage.
Don’t be surprised at the power plays and the personal attacks. Fishing is fertile water for conflict. The UK and EU have overlapping interests: European fishermen, who catch two-thirds of the fish pulled out of British waters, make their living in the seas around the UK. British fishermen, meanwhile, make their living in the fish markets of Europe: it’s estimated that 75 per cent of the UK’s catch is exported, most of it to the continent.
Moreover, it’s the UK fishermen who need frictionless access to the EU as much as any British industry. Their product is among the most perishable. A few months back I wrote about a Caithness shellfish producer who enthusiastically supported Brexit, but knocked on his MP’s door afterwards asking for a soft exit deal. If Scottish langoustines take an extra half day to clear customs at Boulogne, that market is finished. Both sides should want a deal, particularly as the fish British consumers like to eat – cod and haddock – are largely imported, while the fish Europeans prefer – herring and mackerel – are among the UK’s biggest exports. A breakdown in the fish trade will hit consumers and fishermen on all sides.
It’s politics that stands in the way. The biggest indignity the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy imposed on British fishermen wasn’t the scrappage scheme (which concentrated quotas and wealth in the hands of a few people who did very well out of it), restrictive quotas or wasteful discards. It was the knowledge that others were often taking more out of their seas than they were.
No-one believed more fervently that Brexit would make them and their community a winner than fishermen. It’s pretty clear what a win looks like; Theresa May said it herself in a brief but telling comment: her deal would “deliver a bigger annual quota” for the UK.
That’s what this row is about, and how the government will ultimately be judged by fishing interests. Not on the minutiae of the legal agreement between London and Brussels, whether it stands alone or is folded into a wider trade deal. But whether fishing communities feel like winners when the boats come back in.
The problem is this: environmental groups say nearly half of the North Sea’s fish stocks continue to be overexploited, despite the central aim of the CFP being to prevent ecological and economic disaster. Even stocks that are recovering, like cod, are still at historic lows.
Last year, the EU agreed to tough new measures under the CFP aimed at preventing overfishing by preventing quotas from exceeding levels regarded as sustainable by scientists. Those measures, which will undoubtedly be part of discussions about a new UK-EU fishing regime after Brexit, were welcomed by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove – both a leading Brexiteer and someone who has rebuilt his political brand since 2016 through his environmental credentials.
British fishermen want a bigger share of the catch. European fishermen won’t accept a smaller share. Environmentalists say no-one can catch much more than they do now. Mathematically and politically, the two positions can’t be reconciled. The problem isn’t the deal: it’s that there really aren’t plenty more fish in the sea.