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Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Tension mounts in France and European fishing countries ahead of the Brexit vote.

The tension and vagueness around Brexit could make Europeans lose access to the rich British waters. Europe is preparing for the showdown but appears in a weak position. Soon a movement of "yellow nets"? We are not there yet. But the situation could quickly be tense for the French fishermen so much, like their counterparts of Northern Europe, they approach 2019 caught in the trap of Brexit, in which they have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

The stakes are in fact enormous, if not vital: they must preserve the precious access to the British territorial waters, rich in fish and of which they are strongly dependent. According to an April 2017 study by the Framian cabinet for the EU's European Fisheries Alliance (EUFA), the continent's fishermen catch an average of 42% of their catches. The Belgian, Dutch and Swedish fleets are particularly concerned, but the phenomenon is also marked for the French fleet, with 36% taken in British waters, according to the study.

Black scenario

However, in case of "hard Brexit", with an exit from the EU without a transitional agreement, the United Kingdom would leave, as of March 30, the Community fishing policy ... and the free movement of boats that goes with. Technically, London could thus decide at any time, unilaterally, to close access to its territorial waters, the 200-mile strip that surrounds its coasts! This black scenario would be a bomb that could, according to the formula of a European diplomat, "blow up the economy of the sector". According to the EUFA, it would result in the loss of 6,000 jobs out of 18,000 in the European fleets, not to mention the impact on the rest of the sea industry chain.

The promise of Brexiters

This risk is far from negligible. The British Parliament is due to discuss this week's draft agreement for a soft Brexit and everything leaves to worry that he will reject it, which will plunge the country into a new crisis and increase the risk of a "no deal". And the British fishermen are waiting at the turn: in the referendum of 2016, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of the "Leave", warmed by the Brexitiers promising them a golden aftermath by the resumption of control of territorial waters.

A total and immediate closing of the waters seems however unrealistic. Minister in charge, Michael Gove, even told Parliament in late 2017 that, whatever happens, the United Kingdom would apply until the end of 2019 the European system of mutual access to water and fishing quotas. Still, the promise is binding only on those who believe in it, that it comes from a government threatened to leap and that London, whether in a few weeks or months, has a clear plan in mind: access to its ocean resources, on a case-by-case basis with the states to establish its advantage in the negotiations and "rebalancing", according to the Brexitiers' term, the fishing quotas for the British.

The question is all the more delicate for Europeans that it will arise even in case of "soft Brexit". The exit agreement ordered on the table does not provide any lasting guarantee for fishermen. Admittedly, during the transition period, until the end of 2020, it would guarantee a simple and controlled situation: the current system of free access and fishing quotas, negotiated each year in Brussels, would remain in force. But the pack will hurt afterwards. For good reason, products from the sea are not included in the "single customs territory", the system of "relief" planned to organize the exchange of goods from 2021 if no other agreement is found by then on the future trade relationship between the EU and the UK. In other words, sooner or later, the fate of the fishermen will have to be negotiated anyway.

Macron on the front line

The European Union is preparing for it. Of course, the first reflex is to brand the threat of equivalent retaliation. But the balance of power here is unfavourable: British fishermen are less dependent on inland waters, where they catch only 20% of their catches. The idea in vogue in Brussels is therefore to play on the main asset in the round of 27: the access of British fishermen to the European market, where they sell more than three quarters of their catch. "The idea is 'you can continue to sell at home if you can continue fishing at home'," summarise European diplomats.

Milestones were laid at the European summit on November 25, where the 27 validated the draft agreement of "soft Brexit". At the request of France and the Netherlands in particular, European leaders emphasise a declaration annexed to the conclusions of the summit that an agreement with the United Kingdom should be concluded on fisheries "well before the end of the transitional period" and "be based, inter alia, on the principles of reciprocal access and existing quotas ".

Sea ​​against the sky - future of French fishing still in troubled waters

Brexit: the different possible scenarios ...

This bargaining lever, however, also has its limits. Even without an agreement with the EU, UK seafood would retain access to the EU market under WTO rules. They would then suffer customs duties, but these are framed at a level far from prohibitive. This is why Europeans are also careful to raise the threat of even stronger responses by linking the future of fishing to that of other sectors. Mid-July, Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister, set foot on the plate threatening to ban British planes flying over the Republic of Ireland: "You cannot have butter and buttery money . You can not take back your waters and hope to keep the sky of others! Everyone has placed their pawns, the naval battle can begin.

Full story courtesy of LesEchos.fr