Exclusive: Government Considers Legal Action Against The EU Over The Live Shellfish Dispute
The government is considering launching a legal challenge against the European Union's prohibition of live shellfish caught in the UK's class B waters.
Environment Secretary George Eustice on Thursday told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that the government currently could not use arbitration mechanisms contained in the UK-EU trade deal because the treaty had not yet been ratified by the European Parliament.
"One of the issues at the moment is that the EU has not ratifed the TCA (Trade & Cooperation Agreement). So while the UK moved very quickly and parliament returned before Christmas to get it all ratified prior to the New Year, the EU still haven't ratified it," he said.
Once MEPs have ratified the deal, which is expected to happen late next month, "the specialised SPS committee would be set up to deal with these sorts of disputes," Eustice added.
A government source confirmed to PoliticsHome that the UK would consider legal action if Brussels did not change its rules to allow unpurified shellfish from Britain's class B waters into its markets.
"We’re disappointed with the decision and considering options," they said.
Live mussels, cockles, osyers and other shellfish caught in Britain's class B waters — most waters in England and Wales — have been shut out from EU markets since 1 January when the bloc's rules for third countries started to apply to the UK.
The prohibition is the subject of an ongoing row between the UK and EU since PoliticsHome first revealed that the government had been advising shellfish traders that it would only be temporary.
Eustice has repeatedly said the bloc originally planned to let this trade resume after Brexit and changed its position earlier this year. He has described it as indensible and legally wrong.
However, Brussels has consistently denied the government's claims and said that the rules for third countries like the UK are clear and long-standing.
The rules in question impact shellfish that are not ready for human consumption which up until 1 January were purified after reaching the continent and then distributed to restaurants and supermarkets.
They resulted in swathes of the UK shellfish industry's export trade effectively shutting down overnight, pushing shellfish traders in places like Devon, Cumbria and Wales close to collapse.
Eustice told the committee that the government was running out of options for reviving this trade amid warnings that many businesses will not survive without their EU customers.
"If they [the EU] take a position that they just want the abolition of the trade altogether then our ability to change that position is quite limited I’m afraid," the Cabinet minister said.
"We can’t force them to do something they don’t want to do".
A government move to take legal action against the EU would represent another escalation in tensions since the UK the Single Market and Customs Union on New Year's Eve.
The bloc has already taken legal action against the government over its decision to unilaterally extend grace periods covering trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.