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Tuesday 16 June 2020

Brexit: EU preparing to row back on rights to fish in British waters

Brussels is preparing to back down over a Brexit fishing deal and acknowledge for the first time that European fleets do not have an automatic right to fish in British waters. In a concession to help to unlock negotiations, Michel Barnier is understood to accept that the UK will have to be treated as an independent coastal state and have annual negotiations with the bloc over fishing quotas from next year. The EU’s chief negotiator told European diplomats that the compromise would have to wait until other parts of the deal were closer to being finalised. 

British and European leaders authorised Mr Barnier and David Frost, the UK’s negotiator, to scope out the parameters of a compromise privately. 

Speaking after a video call with Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president, Boris Johnson said that the time had come to put some “oomph” into the negotiations, adding that there was a very good chance of securing a trade deal by the end of the year. Both sides pledged to inject “new momentum” into talks. 

Significantly, in their joint statement both sides said that they had authorised their chief negotiators to find “an early understanding on the principles underlying any agreement”. Until now one of the sticking points has been fishing: the EU maintains that Britain must respect the right of EU member states’ fleets to access UK waters on the same terms as the present common fisheries agreement. Under those rules European boats operating in UK waters catch about five times the value of fish that British fishermen catch in EU waters. 

In a significant change in position Mr Barnier accepted the British principle of so-called zonal attachment. EU fishing fleets would have no automatic right to fish in the UK’s exclusive economic zone, which encompasses the sea around Britain stretching in places up to a distance of 200 miles from the coastline. 

Both sides would negotiate reciprocal access to each other’s waters every year, however, as the EU does with Norway. This would give the government leverage to increase the share of the total allowable catch that can be caught by the UK fishing fleet. Mr Barnier is understood to have hinted at the concession during a recent round of negotiations but has so far not tabled a concrete offer.
EU sources said that he was holding off to ensure that it was part of the wider trade deal to make it easier to sell to EU countries such as France and Holland that also have powerful fishing lobbies.

“To dilute the influence of France and the other coastal states, Barnier needs to have the whole trade deal, which stands or falls on fishing,” a senior EU diplomatic source said. A UK government source added: 

“There have been signals that this is an area where Mr Barnier wants to move, but as yet there are no firm proposals on the table.” Mr Johnson said yesterday that there was a very good chance of securing a trade deal “provided we really focus now and get on and do it”. He added: “I don’t think we’re actually that far apart, but what we need now is to see a bit of oomph in the negotiations.” 

After the joint statement from both sides Mr Barnier now has the authority to discuss areas of compromise with Mr Frost even if they are not strictly within the negotiating mandate set down by the EU 27 leaders. 

Fishing talks: who wants what and who is right?

How important is fishing to Britain?

It employs about 24,000 people and contributes about £1.4 billion to the economy, 0.12 per cent of GDP. The industry says this has declined since Britain joined the EU and the common fisheries policy.

Does the UK have a bad deal as an EU member?

Yes, because under the common fisheries policy the fishing quota for individual species of fish, which each member state receives, is based largely on how much they fished in the 1970s. Then the UK fleet spent much of its time around Iceland, which is not a member of the EU. This meant it received a smaller quota than other countries that fished in European waters. This means today the UK has a poor share of the total allowable catch. In 2015 the UK was able to catch only £114 million of fish in EU waters, whereas EU vessels were able to catch £484 million of fish in British waters. 

How does leaving the EU make it fairer?

At the end of the transition period Britain will be able to make use of its exclusive economic zone extending 200 miles out to sea. This means that other EU states will have no right to fish in these waters unless an agreement is reached. What does the EU want from Britain?
Broadly it wants the trade deal to be as close as possible to the status quo. The fishing industry is an emotive issue in other European countries; if French, Dutch and other EU nations were “locked out” of UK waters their industries would suffer. 

What does Britain want?

It wants to attach its 200-mile exclusive fishing zone to that of the EU in return for a bigger portion of the total catch. This is known as zonal attachment. These quotas would be negotiated annually. 

Who has the stronger argument?

Undeniably the UK, but given fishing is such a small proportion of the economy the EU hopes that the government will trade better access for concessions from the EU in other areas. Brussels expects the government to trade fishing for access for the City of London to the single market. European governments are prepared to trade single market access for fishing rights but believe Britain is asking for too much in return. 

Full story courtesy of Bruno Waterfield, Brussels | Oliver Wright, Policy Editor Tuesday June 16 2020, The Times