The NFFO weighs up the deal agreed between the UK and the EU on Christmas Eve How, when on fishing rights the UK held all the cards, did we end up with such a paltry result in the UK/EU negotiations for a future relationship?
The answer is both obvious and bitter. When push came to shove, despite the legal, moral and political strength of our case, fishing was sacrificed for other national objectives. Lacking legal, moral, or political negotiating leverage on fish, the EU made the whole trade deal contingent on a UK surrender on fisheries. In the end-game, the Prime Minister made the call and caved in on fish, despite the rhetoric and assurances that he would not do what Ted Heath did in 1973.
There will of course be an extensive public relations exercise to portray the deal as a fabulous victory, but it will inevitably be seen by the fishing industry as a defeat. There will be those at either end of the leave/remain spectrum in the “told you so” mould, but there was no inevitability about this outcome. The UK negotiating team fought hard and long – fishing was the last issue to be settled – but in the final stretch the decisions lay at the very top of government – with the Prime Minister – and he bottled it. Economics reasserted its dominance over politics.
Most coastal states allow something like 80% of their fisheries resources to be harvested by their own domestic fleets, with the balance being traded for other mutual benefits. Prior to this agreement the EU benefited disproportionately from free access to fish in UK waters and unbalanced quota shares agreed in 1983. What a “25% rebalancing in value terms” actually means to individual fishing businesses and fishing communities will have to await publication of the detailed stock by stock schedules agreed. It is clear, however that it represents a fraction of what the UK has a right to under international law and what the government repeatedly said that it would secure on behalf of the UK fishing industry.
Particular attention will focus on individual stocks where the UK’s quota shares have been obscenely out of line with zonal attachment. English Channel cod, where the UK share has been 9% and the French share has been 84%, or Celtic Sea haddock, where the UK share has been 10% whilst the French share has been 66%, are cases in point.
Access to the UK 6-12nm Limits
The most egregious feature of the outcome announced on Christmas eve has been the failure to secure an exclusive 12-mile limit to protect our inshore fisheries. In this the EU was seen at its most brutal and nakedly political. The EU fleets could easily catch its quotas outside the UK’s coastal zone; just not as profitably, or quickly. Historic fishing rights with modern fishing vessels between 6nm and 12nm are an aberration that should have been easily swept away. President Macron’s direct political intervention blocked even this minor concession to the UK, for his own electoral purposes.
Despite the UK’s failure to secure an outcome consistent with its legal status as an independent coastal state, the European fishing industry are unlikely be embarking on an extensive round of celebrations. The consequences of the geo-political shift represented by the UK’s departure from the EU – for better and worse – will now work themselves out over time. The five year “adjustment period” allowed for in the final deal, will be seen with huge frustration by many in the UK industry, who have experienced 40 years of being tied into an asymmetric and exploitative arrangement. From an EU perspective, five years will pass in the blink of an eye. Despite the likelihood that tariffs will be applied to fishery products, annual fisheries negotiations after the end of the adjustment period, will be the platform to achieve what the UK failed to achieve this year. The rebalancing of quotas begun in the deal will surely be completed, now that the edifice of the equal access and relative stability principles has been breached. That however will depend on the political priority given to fishing by the government of the day.
One area in which the negotiations can be regarded as a success, is in having fought off EU’s attempts to tie the UK back into CFP-like arrangements. The UK has secured the ability to develop and apply its own fisheries management systems, tailored to its own fisheries outside the baleful influence of the Common Fisheries Policy. This is no small achievement. Likewise, the UK will be at the table in future bilateral and tri-lateral fisheries negotiations as an independent and weighty player. Indeed, the UK has already taken its seat at the table in international for a such as NEAFC and bilateral talks for an annual agreement between the UK and Faeroes have already begun.
The decision was made shortly after the referendum to leave the EU single market and the customs union. That decision will carry consequences – most visibly at the borders – where additional documentation will be required to export fisheries products into the EU. Some turbulence can be expected until the new arrangements settle in. The trade deal means that for the time-being anyway, tariffs will not apply in either direction.
26th December 2020