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Analysis

Fish quotas are on the menu, despite PM’s claims

by Nick Kent | 26.11.2019

Despite what he claims, Boris Johnson’s bad Brexit deal doesn’t guarantee the UK will take sole control of its fishing grounds nor that EU fishermen will cease fishing in our waters.  Actually, our fishing industry needs the EU too.

At the heart of the 2016 Leave campaign was the claim that Brexit would enable the UK to control its territorial waters. No more EU fisheries policies to obey; no more French and Spanish trawlers in our waters; and lots more opportunities for UK fishing businesses. But like so much we were told in 2016, it wasn’t the whole truth and Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal demonstrates this.

The Prime Minister told the Commons that his deal means we are taking back control: “I can confirm that we will take back 100% control of the spectacular marine wealth of this country”. As far as it goes, yes, but having legal control of our waters and being able to do what we like with it are different things.

The problem is that the UK needs access to EU markets to sell its fish – we export 70% of our fishing catch to the EU, tariff-free. If we want that kind of access after Brexit the EU will want access to our waters for their members’ boats in return. And, judging by the fact that Norway allows EU trawlers into its waters in order to get market access, we will have to agree.  

July 1 deadline

But the political declaration on the future trade deal with the EU goes further than just acknowledging the trade-off between access to our waters and access to EU markets. The UK has promised to try and reach agreement with the EU on fisheries by July 1 2020 including, “inter alia, access to waters and quota shares” (Clause 73). 

Access to waters? Quota shares? That sounds awfully like the hated Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) we were supposed to be escaping. So we give them up on January 31 only to agree to them again by July 1? That hardly seems consistent with Johnson’s manifesto promise that the future relationship will “ensure we are in full control of our fishing waters”.

And there is more at risk for the UK than access to our waters. The trouble for UK fishing is that we have such a close relationship with the rest of the EU (and its linked countries in the European Economic Area).  It doesn’t just provide the biggest market for our fish but also essential labour for our fish processing sector which also processes fish from some of our neighbours (especially Norway) too. Without free movement we will be short of workers and without tariff-free EU market access, processing of foreign fish will be lost.

Then there is the question of timing. Reaching agreement on fisheries with the EU by July 1 risks that issue becoming entangled with the other July 1 deadline – to agree an extension to the transition period in case we haven’t agreed a trade deal with the EU by December 31 2020. 

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We might find that the EU demands access to UK waters and acceptance by the UK of EU-determined quotas for shared fish stocks as the price of extending the transition. Walking away from that would mean the UK crashing out at the end of 2020 with no long-term trade agreement with the EU. That wouldn’t just imperil our fishermen but the whole UK economy.

As Ivan Rogers, our former EU ambassador, put it: Johnson has boxed himself into such a terrible timetable that he will be under huge pressure to negotiate away our fish stocks.

The truth is that UK control of our waters is less important today with the UK doing better under the CFP and getting the third-largest catch in the EU in 2017. Letting our fishermen increase their catches after Brexit would risk plundering fish stocks, a policy that would put the livelihoods of everyone in fishing communities at risk. And leaving the EU without any fisheries agreement risks a sharp increase in illegal fishing that we do not have the resources to tackle.  

Like so much of Johnson’s deal, when you open the fisheries’ parts of it you are hit by a nasty smell.

The headline was updated on December 3

Edited by Bill Emmott

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