Monday, 7 September 2020

'Economic peanuts, political dynamite': how fishing rights could sink a UK-EU trade deal


Fishing has always been one of the biggest hurdles to a post-Brexit deal between the EU and UK. Now it is becoming one of the most bitter.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, last week accused the government of treating European fishermen and women as “a bargaining chip”, while vowing that there would be no trade deal without a “fair and sustainable” agreement on fishing. Hitting back at Barnier’s speech, which also covered trade, a UK source said it was “a deliberate and misleading caricature of our proposals aimed at deflecting scrutiny from the EU’s own positions, which are wholly unrealistic and unprecedented”.

The acrimony of the debate has some echoes with the British entry negotiations to join the European Community 50 years ago, when the government was presented with a fait accompli on fishing.

Only eight hours after accession talks had begun on 30 June 1970, the British got an unwelcome surprise: the six EC members had agreed to have a common fisheries policy (CFP), hammering out a speedy deal that had eluded them for 12 years just as fish-rich Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway were knocking at the door.

“I think they knew quite well they had pulled a sharp one,” Sir Richard Packer, a former British official involved in entry negotiations in 1971-2, told the Guardian.

Fishing became one of the most poisonous issues of entry talks, leading British officials to doubt whether they would get enough votes in parliament to join the common market. (Norway rejected EC entry over fishing.) “The question of fisheries was economic peanuts, but political dynamite,” wrote the late Sir Con O’Neill, the UK chief negotiator, in his account of the talks from 1972.

Half a century later, the 100 shared stocks that swim in UK and EU waters are once again proving politically explosive. And British negotiators are finding that history is in the negotiating room, as well as politics and geography. But the EU sees the past differently. Mogens Schou, who spent 32 years as a fisheries official for Denmark’s government from 1981, disagrees with the idea that the British got a bad deal when the details of the CFP were finally worked out in the early 1980s. “I don’t remember strong dissatisfaction from the UK with regard to quota sharing. I think this is underlined by [UK] minister Peter Walker’s smile, when he in 1983 described the agreement as a ‘superb agreement for British fishermen’,” said Schou, citing an article he kept from Fishing News.

“Superb is way over the top,” said Packer, who was the UK’s lead CFP negotiator and later the top official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. “But that’s the way politicians always claim these things, don’t they – but we did quite well to get where we did,” he said, citing concessions that increased UK catch quotas, with the aim of protecting small fishing communities, mostly in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But it wasn’t easy, he added. “We were labouring uphill to get any change.”

The UK is once again labouring uphill to convince the EU to drop the tough negotiating mandate member states have written for Barnier on fish. Led by eight member states that fish in British waters, the EU’s opening position was that the UK should accept the status quo, meaning European boats can continue to fish a rich harvest in British waters. More than half (58%) the fish and shellfish landed from the UK’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone by EU boats was caught by non-UK boats, according to a 2016 report from the University of the Highlands and Islands.

For Boris Johnson’s government, Brexit means the status quo must go. British negotiators want bigger catches, based on where fish live, rather than the historical claims of foreign fishermen. Even Barnier, a former French fisheries minister, has described both EU and UK positions as “maximalist”. Speaking to the House of Lords in June, Barnier said he was willing to negotiate something “between those two extreme positions” [of the EU and UK] that “would take account” of the UK’s preferred “zonal attachment” model. But the UK must compromise too, Barnier said, citing EU fishing claims that date back centuries, as well as coastal towns and villages dependent on the industry.

EU negotiators think a deal can be done on fisheries, but after a fruitless summer of talks, Barnier lamented last week that “the UK has not shown any willingness to seek compromises”.

Packer thinks the EU will have “to cave in”, saying: “If everything should carry on in relation to fishing, why should it not carry on in relation to financial markets?”

However, Schou wants his government to defend Denmark’s “strong interest” in access to fisheries. Schou says: “If I was a Danish official, my advice would be to stick to the mandate that Michel Barnier has got. To me it is not a question of rights, but about negotiating a package on mutual interests in fishing, in trade relations and banking, and what you can put on the table.”

For now, EU member states are sticking to this line. “The mandate stays,” one senior EU diplomat told the Guardian, claiming historical rights dating back to the 14th century. But other member states think the EU is out on a limb. “If the French play harder and harder and put Britain in the corner, it makes it harder for Berlin to defend,” said another senior diplomat. “I think we need a compromise on our side.”

The two retired officials suggest the final compromise may not be a million nautical miles from one feature of the status quo – annual ministerial haggling over catch quotas in airless rooms. Packer points to precedent – the current system within the EU, where total allowable catches [TACs] are agreed each year, based on a formula for sharing the stocks. “We are not asking for any more than the EU demands in relation to its negotiations with Norway.”

Schou points out that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea obliges the UK and EU to cooperate on shared stocks. He thinks the final result could be compared to the internal policy of the EU, “where we have heated discussions on TACs and technical rules, but no discussions on allocation”, meaning the formula to divide catches between the EU and UK must be agreed in current negotiations.

British ministers could be sparring in Brussels on cod and sprat quotas for years to come.

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Fuol story courtesy of the Guradian news paper: