Friday, 4 February 2022



Policy after Brexit Brexit is done, but what does it mean?

Doing things differently? 

Policy after Brexit brings together a number experts in their respective fields to investigate how policy and policymaking have changed in a range of sectors. We asked them to consider how changes so far compare to what was promised before Brexit, and to analyse what changes lie ahead and what their impact might be.

Their contributions are divided into three sections: first, those policy areas (trade, immigration, agriculture, fisheries and subsidies) where Brexit compelled the UK to put in place alternative policies. Second, those retaining significant amounts of EU law where the government could think seriously about divergence (financial services, procurement, taxation, consumer protection, environmental policy, energy policy and aviation). A final section considers new or emergent sectors in which both the UK and EU are looking to dip their regulatory toes (climate change and net zero, data and digital, autonomous vehicles and bioscience).

‘Taking back control’ of British fisheries and waters was wholeheartedly embraced by those campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. As a result, fisheries attained an exceptionally high profile during the Brexit referendum and the negotiations that followed, and continues to do so.

Many who promoted the benefits of Brexit for UK fisheries were senior politicians who now hold positions of power in government, including that of Prime Minister. Their promises fell into three main categories: UK control of fisheries regulations, restrictions on the access of foreign vessels to UK waters, and increased quota shares for UK vessels. All of this was to be achieved with only minimal effects on the UK’s ability to trade with the EU, which is the main market for British-caught seafood.

As the Brexit negotiations rumbled on through 2020, it became increasingly obvious that the UK would need to make significant concessions on fisheries in order to avoid a costly no-deal Brexit. Consequently, although the fisheries minister Victoria Prentis promised an exclusive zone for UK vessels within 12 miles of the British coast, the government acknowledged that EU vessels would still have significant access to fish in offshore UK waters. Likewise, although the UK government initially wanted all future fish quotas to be based on the proportion of fish populations living in UK waters (zonal attachment), this approach appeared to dissolve as the government pushed instead for large headline gains in quota (up to 80%), whereas the EU aimed to maintain the status quo.


Despite the lofty promises to the UK fishing industry, the reality delivered by Brexit falls well short of the rhetoric.

The TCA provides for an increase in UK quota-share of 25% of the value of the previous EU catch in UK waters, phased in from 2021 to 2026. This translates into a less than 10% increase in value (less than 100,000 tonnes) of the total UK catch.

Many EU vessels have been granted access to offshore UK waters (1,822 up 15 December 2021). One hundred and fifty-three of these also permitted to fish


within the six-to-twelve-mile zone off the southern English coast, and another 170 in Crown Dependency waters. Crossing this UK red line generated particular anger from the UK fishing industry, with the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) calling the deal ‘miniscule, marginal, paltry, pathetic’. Despite these British concessions on access and quotas, disagreements over French requests for further licences continue to hit the headlines and currently remain unresolved. These tensions have arisen due to a lack of detail in the TCA about the specific proof of past fishing activities needed to qualify for a licence to fish in UK waters. Unfortunately, small vessels (under 12 metres) do not generally carry satellite-based vessel monitoring systems and are hence finding it difficult to provide this evidence. The French government maintains this is discriminatory, and fishers have already blockaded ports in protest. Further French government threats include banning all British seafood imports and imposing extra checks on goods arriving from and leaving the UK.

The TCA may have achieved tariff-free trade with the EU, but British seafood exporters face extra paperwork and costs and a ban on the exporting of live adult shellfish. Consequently, UK seafood exports to the EU have dropped significantly. A recent analysis for the NFFO predicts that by 2026 the UK fishing industry will have lost £300 million in earnings due to Brexit.


Could UK fishers enjoy a better future once the initial adjustment period ends in 2026? It looks unlikely.

The wording of the TCA implies no further catch-share increase after 2026. If the UK sought to impose this, the EU could reduce reciprocal fishing access and place tariffs on fish imports and on other goods, or ultimately suspend other parts of the agreement. We are already seeing this play out with the relatively minor disagreements over licences with France. Compromises on fisheries will be essential for maintaining favourable trade.

If the UK cannot increase its quota-shares or further restrict foreign access, perhaps it could increase the productivity of the fish stocks in its waters through its stated ambition to become ‘a world leader in managing our resources while protecting the marine environment’. The TCA is more promising on this front, with long-term commitments from both the UK and EU to ensure that fishing activities for shared stocks are environmentally sustainable and to restore populations of harvested species above levels that can produce maximum catches. Whether these commitments will be acted on remains to be seen.


A more promising route may be through the measures contained in the Fisheries Act. Again, there are encouraging commitments on sustainability, especially the incentives to connect quota distribution with the use of fishing gear and techniques with a lower environmental impact, and recognition of the need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from fisheries while adapting to the effects of climate change.

Under the Joint Fisheries Statement, agreed by England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there are also new, more granular fisheries management plans, which might address the neglected issue of species for which catches are currently not limited by quota.

Brexit may also provide an opportunity for the UK to enhance the protection of its offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which was previously hindered by the need to gain agreement on measures from all relevant EU states. The UK government has already proposed banning bottom-towed fishing gear (e.g. trawling for flatfish and dredging for scallops) in four of these MPAs, including Dogger Bank, although this is now facing a potential legal challenge from Denmark over compatibility with the TCA.

The only certainty looking forward is that there will continue to be tensions between the UK and its neighbours over fishing rights. As climate change continues to alter the distribution of fish stocks across international waters, such disagreements over quota-shares and access seem only likely to escalate further. Shifting away from the current fixed system of allocating fishing opportunities according to past shares, towards a more flexible zonal attachment method, seems the only logical way forward. But whether the UK wants to keep rocking the boat remains to be seen.

Full story courtesy of UK In a Changing Europe