Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Brexit good for fishing - time will tell.

Simon Nixon writing in the Times says: Promises to UK fishing industry were just another Brexit fantasy - will he be proright or wrong?

For a moment of self-proclaimed national triumph, the lack of celebration is striking. No grand treaty-signing ceremony in Brussels, just Boris Johnson alone at his desk in London. No festival, no fireworks, not even a Big Ben Bong; just a light show in Downing Street and a televised fireside chat by the prime minister. But on Friday at 11pm Britain will finally leave the European Union and on Saturday emerge blinking into the sunlit uplands, an independent nation once again, ready to seize the opportunities afforded by Brexit. If only anybody knew what they are.

What makes this moment extraordinary and, no doubt, explains the low-key celebrations, is that even now, three and half years on from the referendum, the government still can’t point with any conviction to any upsides to leaving the EU.

Brexit was always a solution looking for a problem. It has turned out to be a solution that causes far more problems than the Brexiteers, whose ignorance of what the EU does and how global trade works, has been cruelly exposed, had ever anticipated. Once Britain is outside the bloc, their rhetoric will inevitably collide with reality.

Nowhere is that collision likely to be so painful as in the case of fish. The fishing industry played a central role in the Brexit campaign as a symbol of all that was supposedly wrong with the EU. The tale of how it was betrayed in the negotiations over Britain’s entry to the European Communities in 1973 supplied the original stab-in-the-back narrative that sustained the anti-EU cause for 47 years. Brussels’ demand that Britain open up its waters to rapacious foreign trawlers was a disaster for British fishing. Leaving the EU was an opportunity to reverse this historic injustice by quitting the hated Common Fisheries Policy and taking back control of Britain’s territorial waters.

Yet as with so often with Brexit, this narrative was almost entirely wrong. It was not the EEC, as it then was, which brought foreign fishing fleets into British waters. They had been fishing them for centuries. The fisheries policy, for the most part, codified fishing rights that already existed by allocating quotas to European fishing fleets based on historic catches. It is true that the British fleet dwindled after joining the fisheries policy but that was true of fishing fleets everywhere, whether they were in the CFP or not, reflecting the trend towards larger ships and increased industrialisation.

If the British industry declined faster than others it was in part due to a domestic political decision, unique in Europe, to allow British fishermen to sell their quotas. In a depressingly familiar story of British short-termism, many businesses took the opportunity to cash out rather than invest. The result is that more than half Britain’s quota is held by Dutch, Spanish and Icelandic-owned ships sailing under British flags. More than half Northern Ireland’s quota is hoarded on to a single trawler. One Dutch multinational controls a quarter of England’s quota.

That is not to deny that there have been many problems with the CFP over the years. It took too long to grapple effectively with the problem of over-fishing. The result was that some fishing grounds had to be closed and quotas cut to allow stocks to revive. That included restrictions on North Sea cod fishing, which is important to the UK market. Nonetheless, recent reforms, that Britain played a leading role in shaping, appear to have addressed many of these issues.

It is important to note that the CFP bought benefits to the UK fishing industry too. The reality is that Britain imports 70 per cent of the fish it eats, such as cod and haddock, but exports 80 per cent of the fish it catches, mostly to the EU.

British waters are rich in species such as langoustines and crab, which are popular in France and Spain, and mackerel and herring, which are sold in Northern Europe. By opening up new markets for British-caught fish, EU membership helped create a thriving fish processing industry in Britain even as the numbers employed in catching fish dwindled.

Yet Brexiteers characteristically promised the fishing industry that, outside the EU, Britain could have its cake and eat it. Britain would become an independent coastal nation again, they said, taking back control of its own territorial waters, which under the UN Law of the Sea extend 200 miles from the coast. It would be up to the British government to decide how much access, if any, to allow to foreign ships. British fishermen were told they could expect massive increases in quotas without any restrictions on their ability to sell their catches in European markets.

This is of course a fantasy. Britain’s fishing fleet almost certainly doesn’t have the capacity to catch all the fish in British waters – and even if it did it would certainly need access to European markets to sell them. But the EU has been clear that the price of access to its markets must be access for its fishing fleets to British waters. There’s no reason to believe it is bluffing given that many EU countries have their own, often highly militant, fishing industries to worry about. Under the EU Council’s own negotiating guidelines, the EU wants a deal that would guarantee that existing access is maintained. Senior EU figures have suggested that access to EU markets for British financial services firms could hinge upon agreeing such a deal on fish.

What will the dawn of the Brexit era bring for the UK fleet?

That has prompted talk of a major clash later this year. But it is hard to believe that Mr Johnson is really going to die in another of his famous ditches over an industry that generates less than one per cent of GDP and employs just 12,000 people. Besides some parts of the industry, not least fish processors, will be pressing for a deal. Environment secretary Theresa Villiers last week introduced a bill in parliament that legally guarantees Britain will leave the CFP. But the government will have little choice but to negotiate a new deal that looks remarkably similar to the CFP. How Mr Johnson sells that deal to those whose expectations he so recklessly raised remains to be seen.