Tuesday 20 March 2018

The New Brexit Battle – Europe Wants Our Fish

Something fishy is going on with the Brexit negotiations between the European Union (EU) and the UK. News came yesterday that the transitional deal, whereby the UK stays effectively within the EU after we officially leave the organisation in March next year, will see the country adhering to all EU rules, but without having any say in what those rules are.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that this is the case, as the EU has said as much all along, but this has sparked controversy all the same. Yes, the fact that EU nationals settling in the UK during the transition will have the same rights as those already here has caused a stir, but it seems to be issue of fishing that has most animated the most argent Brexiters the most.

The UK joined the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in 2007 as part of the Treaty of Lisbon, and it came into force in 2009. Basically, the CFP allows all member states to fish in each others waters. It has always been controversial in the British fishing industry and did contribute towards dwindling stocks of fish like cod in UK coastal waters. However, part of the CPF deals with conservation and stocks of cod have now recovered to some extent, enough to be declared ‘sustainable’ again.

Coastal towns in the UK, including those particularly associated with the fishing industry, were areas that voted strongly for leaving the EU, so they surely had in mind ‘taking back control’ of fishing in British coastal waters, many of them Labour held constituencies.

As I say, it was to be expected that the transitional deal on offer from the EU would be one of maintaining the status quo, with Britain losing any influence over any changes to EU policies. But last week, the EU revealed its draft arrangements for the EU/UK relationship when the transition period ends, and EU access to British coastal waters was specified as a price of a free trade deal in manufacturing goods, which again caused controversy amongst Brexiters.

It is kind of ironic that Norway, not in the EU, but in the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), has control of its fish stocks (and farming), but is of course in the single market and customs union for other goods and services, and free movement of people. It looks as though the UK’s terms will be worse in some regards than Norway’s.

It’s not just Brexiters that are unhappy with not getting back control of fisheries. The 13 Scottish Tory MPs, all remainers, have been quick to lay claim to ‘Scottish fish’ and it is my understanding that the Scottish National Party (SNP), also pro-remain, wants this issue devolved to the Scottish government.

The Labour party, or its leave supporters anyway, is also taking a belated look at fisheries. Brendan Chilton, general secretary of Labour Leave, writing on Labour List, extolls the virtues of regaining control over fisheries, as a way of making big electoral gains in Scotland from the SNP, and holding onto English coastal towns that were heavily in favour of Brexit.

Chilton says this is an, ‘opportunity for Labour to appeal to its core vote, which strongly supported leave, and to go on the attack against the Tories and the SNP, particularly in Scotland and along the east coast of England.’

He concludes his piece by saying, ‘The party should also guarantee that the next Labour government will restore the integrity of those territorial waters for the British fishing industry and work to ensure their sustainability for the long term.‘

The UK does of course have substantial coastal waters, being (the mainland) an island, whereas most of continental Europe doesn’t have so much in the way territorial waters, so you can see why they want access to our fish, especially the Spanish, who are partial to a bit of cod.

Personally, I’m not interested in trade deals with the US, Australia etc, and of all the leave the EU options, the Norway model is by far the best. Control of fisheries and farming, single market and customs union members, but still no influence over EU policies. Norway of course accepts free movement, but that has never bothered me anyway.

All the talk surrounding Brexit has been of free trade deals, but it is beginning to look like fisheries could well be the major sticking point. The UK may pursue what may be termed a ‘dolphin policy’ here casting the EU as the dolphins, named after the passage in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where the dolphins depart planet earth. ‘So long and thanks for all the fish.’ 

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