22 December 2017
Over the next ten months, the shape of the UK’s future outside the EU should become clearer. In order to fit with the parliamentary ratification processes in both the UK and EU, exit negotiations must be concluded by October 2018, if the Government’s timetable for departure in March 2019 is to be met.
Few, if any, sectors of the economy have more at stake than the UK fishing industry. A future as an independent coastal state was denied us in 1973, when the UK was ambushed on entry conditions to the EEC. Leaving the EU now offers the prospect of revisiting that particular historic fork in the road.
There remain huge questions and uncertainties about the UK’s future relationship with our biggest trading partner. The situation with fishing jurisdiction is somewhat different. When the UK leaves the EU, it leaves the Common Fisheries Policy by default. Biology and geography will continue to tie us to the EU (and Norway and other third countries) for the purpose of managing shared stocks. But the UK will henceforth enter that relationship as an independent coastal state rather than one member state amongst many.
On the current trajectory, the only way this future could be denied us is through a deliberate act of sabotage and self-harm by the British Government during the Brexit negotiations. At present that seems unlikely. Fishing remains high in the Government’s priorities. This is not just because many in high places agree that fishing was treated appallingly in 1973, but also because fishing, in many respects, is symbolic of Brexit. Our industry will be a litmus test for the new relationship with the EU and it will be clear, from early in April 2019, which fork in the road we have taken. The other aspects of Brexit will take years, if not decades, to work themselves out. The change in fisheries jurisdiction will be immediate.
All the signs are that the Government are working on this basis. Although much CFP law will be transferred into UK law through the Withdrawal Bill, the subsequent stand-alone Fisheries Bill will give UK ministers the power to set and agree quotas, and determine access conditions for non-UK vessels to fish in UK waters. Separate work-strands on international fisheries agreements, a workable discard ban and trade-flows are already under way.
NFFO Work Programme
All of this largely pre-determines the shape of the NFFO’s work programme for the year ahead. We have made good progress so far by working closely with government on the process of leaving the CFP and the shape of the UK’s future fisheries regime. Much detail still has to be worked out and discussed but the shape of a flexible, responsive, fisheries policy with a workable discard policy at its heart, is emerging as a shared vision. The Westminster Parliament will have a hugely increased role in fisheries and briefing parliamentarians in both Houses will be a priority for the year ahead.
The UK press and media seem broadly supportive of our aspirations for leaving the CFP. A breakfast briefing for political editors at Fishmonger’s Hall, in November provided an excellent platform to explain our case in detail. Fishmonger’s was also the venue for a very successful conference in which experts from the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Norway outlined what worked and what didn’t in their systems, and what might be relevant to the UK. The content is likely to be extremely useful. A study trip earlier in the year to meet with the Norwegian Government and Norwegian Fishermen’s Association also set the scene for new and important relationships as we leave the EU.
Pressures of parliamentary time may mean that some aspects of the CFP – technical conservation rules, for example – could be with us for some time after we leave the CFP. And it will be important to ensure that UK fisheries management delivers at least equivalence in terms of effect, in order to maintain smooth market access – but that does not seem like an insuperable problem given the current convergence and the UK’s generally positive and innovative approach to managing its fisheries. Outside the rigid strictures of the EU co-decision process a lot more should be possible.
The CFP has taken us down many blind alleys over the years. Despite attempts, mainly through regionalisation, to break free of prescriptive micro-management) the EU’s institutional framework remains uniquely Ill-designed to provide modern, responsive and adaptive, fisheries management. Co-decision with the European Parliament has served to increase the remoteness of decision-makers from the people affected by the rules.
Nevertheless, despite the wrong-turnings and mistakes, and with one or two species which buck the trend, the general stock trends, right across our fisheries for all of the main species groups, are positive. As we transition from the CFP to life as an independent coastal state it will remain paramount to ensure that this momentum – the basis for our prosperity – continues.
When phase II negotiations reopen in Brussels, early next year, the UK will seek a two year implementation phase during which the UK will remain close to the single market and the customs union. From the perspective of our trading relationship and to avoid an abrupt rupture, damaging to both sides, this seems sensible.
The Commission, on its side, initially signalled that this would mean that the whole aquis communautaire (the whole body of EU law) would continue to apply to the UK during this implementation/transition phase.
This broad initial EU negotiating position was understandable, if unrealistic. But applied to fisheries it makes no senses the all. Taken at face value, it would mean that because during the two year transition phase the UK would not be involved in the EU institutions like the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament, the UK would not be at the table when quotas are set. It is politically inconceivable that the annual rounds of setting TACs and quotas in 2019 and 2020, could be allowed to take place reference to the UK ministers, especially when such a high proportion of the catch is made in UK waters.
As usual, fishing is different and will have to be treated differently. There is a precedent. Norway is in the EU single market, pays a large amount of money for the privilege but has no say on making the EU trade rules and standards which it must apply to its own industry in order to keep trading with the EU. But importantly, Norway is not in the Common Fisheries Policy. The single market is one thing and the management of fisheries is something else.
In its recommended negotiating guidelines to the Council of Europe for the next stage of the withdrawal negotiations, the Commission acknowledges that separate arrangements will be necessary for fisheries:
“Specific procedural arrangements which are compliant with paragraphs 17 and 18 should be found for the fixing and allocation of fishing opportunities (total allowable catches) during the transition period”
(Paragraph 17 says that during any transition period, ECJ rulings would continue to apply and UK ministers would not be involved in decisions made by the European institutions; and paragraph 18 says that there may be occasions when the UK might be invited to participate.)
The most likely scenario may therefore look something like this:
- December 2018. The Council of Ministers will meet to decide TACs and quotas for 2019.
- Parallel fisheries negotiations between EU and UK will take place in recognition that the UK will leave the EU, and therefore the CFP, in March 2019. The agreed quotas would apply for the whole of 2019 in order to avoid confusion
- Autumn 2019, will see a wholly new institutional arrangement, in which the EU and UK enter talks for an annual fisheries agreement for 2020; in the North Sea, these annual negotiations will involve Norway
- The UK legal base for this approach will be laid down in the Fisheries Bill during 2018, which will give UK ministers powers to set (and agree) TACs, quotas and access arrangements, in accord with international law
Monitoring Control and Enforcement
Finally, there has been ill-informed press comment about whether the UK will be able to police its waters after it leaves the EU.
The UK is of course, as an EU member state, already responsible for policing its own waters and as every year goes by technological developments like satellite monitoring strengthens our ability to apply a risk-based approach.
Iceland, with a population of 350,000 manages to police its waters. Why would the UK with a population of 65 million and two thousand years of maritime history not be able to do it?