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Are there plenty more fish in the sea for the EU?

Tessa Corina | Dods Monitoring

5 min read

As the Government's landmark Fisheries Bill passed through the House of Commons this week, Dods Monitoring's Tessa Corina considers the future for the Common Fisheries Policy.

“Taking back control of UK waters” and becoming an “independent coastal state” became leading slogans through the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, acting as a vehicle to drive the Leave message. Crescendo-ing into an unforgettable flotilla clash on the Thames between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldolf, the proponents of Brexit were calling for fewer European boats present in UK waters and, in turn, the reallocation of fishing opportunities to the greater benefit of UK fishermen, reversing the decline of the British fishing industry. This would have important implications for the UK’s fishing fleet as well as those of the EU27 and is likely to become a key focus of negotiations during the transition period.

Sea-sick of the CFP

The UK fishing industry accounts for 0.12 per cent of the UK’s GDP and is essential to coastal communities; in 2018 it was reported that there were around 12,000 active UK fishermen. Core to the debate is the impact of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) on UK fishermen, as all rules relating to catches, quotas and discards are designed by the European Commission, built upon an ideology of shared waters. Many UK fishermen believe this provides them with unequal access to the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): indeed, more than 700,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish are caught each year by EU boats in UK waters, resulting in UK boats catching 40 percent of the tonnage of fish caught in British waters. By comparison it is reported that, in 2015, only 16 per cent of fish and shellfish landed by UK vessels was caught in other EU member states’ waters which could indicate why some UK fishermen feel like this isn’t a fair deal.

Singing to different tunas

The debate around fisheries is set to be a contentious issue in the EU/UK negotiations, with both sides stating incompatible negotiating directives. Britain has refused to offer assurances that EU fleets will continue to have the same level of access as currently, and UK officials remain hard-nosed on their line that "British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats". The UK’s Fisheries Bill, introduced last month, will give powers “to implement new deals negotiated with the EU and other coastal states, set quotas, fishing opportunities and days at sea” along with requiring foreign vessels to be licensed if they fish in British waters. And Britain has made it clear that they want annual negotiations on access to UK waters and quotas.

The EU, however, have highlighted their wish for a framework for management of fish stocks and access. Despite the UK Government’s repeated assurances that they will not sell-out the UK fishing industry, the EU is still seeking guaranteed access to UK coastal waters, aiming to avoid “economic dislocation” for Union fishermen that have historically fished in UK waters. As the FT reports, the majority of the EU catch is made in the North East Atlantic, with much of it part of British waters, ensuring continued access will be firmly on the EU’s agenda in negotiations. EU leaders have reportedly agreed to make the bloc’s future economic relationship with the UK dependent on continued rights for EU fishermen, explicitly linking the City of London’s future market access to Britain granting EU fishermen access to UK coastal waters. Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, warned the UK that they may have to make concessions in areas such as fishing in order to get concessions from the EU in areas such as financial services, which accounted for around 6.9 per cent of UK GDP in 2018. Further to this, Barnier cautioned the tightness of the 11-month timetable for agreeing a UK-EU trade deal.

UK fishermen to be thrown overboard?

The tightness of the 11-month timetable is actually more severe in regard to fisheries. The Political Declaration, agreed by both sides, states that both parties should conclude and ratify their new fisheries agreement by 1 July 2020 for it to be in place in time to be used for determining fishing opportunities for the first year after the transition period. But given the disparities between the demands of each side, reaching an agreement is likely to be a much larger task than each hoped for.

Given the ‘bountifulness’ of UK waters, one may be forgiven for thinking that the UK government is in a particularly strong position for these negotiations. But these negotiations can’t be looked at in isolation from the wider trade negotiations.

The EU have already made an explicit link between access to fishing waters and access to the market, insisting that without a deal on fishing, there will be no special access to other sectors such as the financial services. In their negotiating directives, the EU’s stance on fishing rights has been made clear, noting that the objective of the provisions of fisheries should “uphold Union fishing activities”, and “build on existing reciprocal access conditions, quota shares and the traditional activity of the Union fleet”. Therefore, the EU27 could decide not to ratify an agreement if it gives Union fishermen less access than they currently have, and could hold other UK demands to ransom over this.

Despite fishing’s symbolic potency during and post-referendum, the economic benefits of conceding for other trade negotiations may outweigh the nationalistic rhetoric of taking back control. If Johnson is serious about achieving a comprehensive agreement within the timescale that he is determined to meet, he will likely have to make significant concessions on allowing Union fishermen access. The UK fishing fleet may find that “taking back control” of British waters is not necessarily synonymous with denying access to EU fleets.

To read an exclusive lookahead, highlighting key dates for the fishing industry, including when the EU and UK are expected to conclude and ratify a new fisheries agreement, CLICK HERE. 

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