The NFFO takes stock of the negotiations for a UK/EU fisheries deal, after the remaining issues blocking a deal have been elevated to the political realm
The announcement that no further progress can be made in negotiations towards an agreement on the future UK/EU relationship, by the chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, comes as no surprise. The gulf between the two sides on fisheries has been huge and seems to have widened in recent days.
In the negotiations, the EU side has moved only millimetres from its original mandate which insists that the only acceptable terms for a trade agreement would be a humiliating surrender by the UK on fisheries. And it would be a huge capitulation. Under the conditions insisted upon by the EU, EU fleets would essentially retain the automatic access to fish in UK waters and hold the status quo on quota shares. To agree to these conditions would be to deny the UK’s legal status as an independent coastal state and render the UK’s departure from the EU as utterly worthless, so far as fisheries are concerned. Even the right to control its own waters inside its own 12-mile limit would be surrendered. On quota shares, be reminded that the UK share of Channel cod is 9%; the French share is 84%.
A compromise is on offer. The UK would agree to reasonable levels of access for EU fleets to fish in UK waters outside the 12-mile limit – in return for a rebalance of quota shares and recognition that the UK will act as any other coastal state, to maintain control over who fishes in its waters. The EU’s offer on quota shares has been risible and the EU will only accept terms that would neuter the UK’s rights as an independent coastal state. Hence the impasse.
The two parties will now take stock and consult with their political masters. We can expect that the phone lines between the capitals will be busy. The stakes are high:
- A free trade deal which is in everyone’s interest
- The future of a UK fishing industry that has been tied for 40 years into an asymmetric and exploitative relationship with the EU
- The presidency of France and the future of Europe as Macron faces re-election in April 2022
- The future, and legacy of the British Prime Minister, elected to get one job done.
All hang in the balance. On fish, Boris Johnson knows that this is his Ted Heath moment.
Leaving aside the unlikely, and frankly suicidal, possibility that the Prime Minister accepts the EU’s conditions of surrender, two possibilities occur. The other member states might curb President Macron’s Versailles-like surrender terms and a reasonable compromise could be reached in the next few days. Alternatively, there could be an acceptance that a trade deal is not achievable at this juncture. There is no disguising that this would carry serious adverse implications for both the UK and many EU member states. Tariffs would apply and trade between the UK and the EU would be conducted on less advantageous WTO terms.
No deal would also mean that the EU will immediately enter negotiations with the UK (and where they have an interest, with Norway) for an annual fisheries agreement for 2021, with no prior guarantee that EU fleets would have access to fish any part of UK waters from 1st January. Negotiations for an annual fisheries agreement (as opposed to the framework agreement under discussion) would normally have been approaching conclusion by this stage in the year. In the absence of a fisheries agreement for 2021, something like 3000 EU fishing vessels will have no legal access to fish in UK waters, until there is an agreement. The EU faced something like this a number of years ago when Morocco closed its waters to the EU fleets.
The EU is exerting every muscle to thwart the UK’s legal right under international law as a coastal state to harvest the resources within its exclusive economic zone. The reason why is clear. EU fleets benefit massively from the asymmetrical arrangements agreed in 1973 and again in 1983, with the introduction of quotas.
It is, however, the balance of domestic politics, particularly in France, that prevents the EU from gracefully accepting this landmark change in the legal and political realities.
It is also the balance of domestic politics that ensures that the UK Prime Minister is highly unlikely to follow Ted Heath in sacrificing the fishing industry, which has a huge totemic significance for those who voted to leave the EU.