Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Forget the loaves. With a Brexit cliff edge looming, the question is who will share out the fishes?

The BBC posted a Brexit and Fishing story from deep in the French fishing heartlands of the Channel. 

Referenced in that post, the article below paints a considered view as to the reality fo the negotiations currently underway between the Uk and the EU where, despite its minuscule size in the grand scheme of things, fishing continues to exercise the minds of UK negotiators.

As Britain and the European Union manoeuvre toward a post-Brexit trade deal this week, an industry worth a minuscule share of their GDP — an economic sprat, a mere tiddler — could still sink the talks.

The slippery question causing agitation on both sides is who will have the right to catch what and where once the U.K. carries off many of northern Europe’s richest fishing grounds starting January 1.

The problem could be solved if both sides face their differences honestly and prepare public opinion for compromise. As things stand, a poisonous mixture of political over-bidding and technical complexity threatens to capsize the entire post-Brexit negotiation.

"When Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, it agreed to merge its potential 200-mile fishing rights with those of its neighbours."

In the U.K., fisheries account for only 0.12 percent of GDP. But the industry has attained a patriotic symbolism and political strength more inflated than that of the car industry or the City of London. Misleading and emotive arguments about how the EU “stole our fish” in the 1980s have created a sea-monster of overblown post-Brexit expectations that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government cannot now easily kill or tame.

On the EU side, the real economic stakes seem equally small. Only five EU member states — France, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands — are vitally concerned by the loss of fishing grounds in the Channel, North Sea and Atlantic.

For those nations, however, fish is more tangible than many of the other theological-seeming arguments surrounding Brexit. The dispute threatens the survival of age-old industries — vital to the national economy (as in Denmark) or to the prosperity of politically sensitive towns or regions (as in France, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands).

Consider, for example, the northern French fishing fleets from Pas de Calais, Normandy and Brittany. They take up to 60 percent of their catch in what will become British waters from the New Year. They cast their nets on the northern side of the English Channel and in the North Sea but also as far away as the Atlantic coast of Scotland.

These rights were not given to French boats, or taken away from British ones, when the EU fisheries policy was created in 1983 (as U.K. public opinion has been taught to believe). European fisheries had been a free-for-all for centuries before exclusive economic zones were created, first up to 12 miles from coastlines then out to 200 miles by the mid-1970s.

When Britain joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, it agreed to merge its potential 200-mile fishing rights with those of its neighbours — something many U.K. fishermen have always resented.

By dint of geography and fish behaviour, most of the richest northern European fishing grounds will be, post-Brexit, within Icelandic, Norwegian waters and British waters. European governments, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, insist that Britain’s departure from the EU must lead to no reduction in catches or access to the new British zone. Otherwise, they say, all other trade deals with the U.K. are off.

This is an unrealistic and absolutist point of view. As the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, pointed out in private to EU diplomats last week, the French and other governments should start preparing the fishing industry and wider opinion for some degree of piscine pain.

If there is no deal between Britain and the EU on post-Brexit trade and other issues, the U.K. would be within its international legal rights to stop all EU fishing boats from entering its economic zone from January 1. Such a ban — as Barnier pointed out — would be even more calamitous for the French and other fleets than a cut in permitted catches or “quotas.”

A fishing war would be equally calamitous for the U.K. — something that the loudest mouths in pro-Brexit politics and in the British fishing industry prefer to ignore.

Some of the most vibrant parts of the U.K. industry have nothing to gain and everything to lose from Brexit. Four-fifths of their catch of shellfish, lobsters, crabs and langoustines are sold overnight to the Continent (mostly to Spain and France). This industry will be destroyed if there is no post-Brexit deal to lighten regulation and keep tariffs off food exports.

European governments insist that Britain’s departure from the EU must lead to no reduction in catches or access to the new British zone.

The present U.K. approach to the fisheries negotiations is an unpleasant blend of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, beggar-thy-neighbor and dog-in-the-manger.

What would Britain do with all the horse-mackerel and sprats caught in the North Sea by the Danes to grind into pig feed? Or all the French catches of saithe or “coley,” which is little eaten in Britain. Anyone for Coley and Chips?

A more reasonable U.K. approach to the fisheries question would be to seek a deal that increased British catches — but that doesn’t attempt at a wholesale grab of much of the fish now caught by EU boats. In return, Britain should seek relatively easy continued access for British fish and seafood to the EU.

Instead, the British government originally offered the Europeans nothing — except annual discussions on swaps of EU catches in British waters for British catches in EU waters. It then improved its offer to a three-year period of diminishing quotas followed by annual discussions with no guarantees. No industry could be expected to survive on such a short time-horizon.

"In the end, as has been true throughout the U.K.-EU negotiations, there’s a deal to be had if both sides want it enough." 

The British insistence on annual discussions with no long-term fixed pattern of catch shares is now the single biggest obstacle to a deal. It’s also an idea dear to militant British fishermen’s leaders, and a source of great dishonesty on the part of the UK government.

Last month, Britain’s environment, agriculture and fisheries minister, George Eustice, signed an outline agreement with non-EU Norway on future London-Oslo cooperation on fishing. He claimed in an article in the Daily Telegraph that this deal was a model for the kind of annual, no-guarantees negotiations that Britain is seeking from the EU.

It wasn’t. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

A fishing war would be calamitous for the UK

According to the leaked text, the deal is modelled on EU-Norway agreements going back to 1979-1981, giving permanent shares of six main fish stocks. This is close to what the EU is now asking of the U.K. — a lasting share-out of stocks and then an annual discussion on what tonnage of fish is scientifically safe to catch.

If I was a suspicious fisherman, I would wonder if the British government was intending to pull the same trick in talks with the EU. London will claim that it has “won” the battle for “annual” negotiations. It will then point to yearly talks on “allowable” fish tonnages — which have always existed.

In the end, as has been true throughout the U.K.-EU negotiations, there’s a deal to be had if both sides want it enough. They face a choice — between the Devil of a No Deal and the political dangers of the Deep Blue Sea. 

Full story courtesy of Politico

John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.