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Ministers are ignoring the political reality of post-Brexit fisheries negotiations

Ministers are ignoring the political reality of post-Brexit fisheries negotiations

We may see the rights to fish in our coastal waters and economic zone as a separate issue from a future trade deal, but the other side will clearly not, says Lord Teverson | Credit: PA Images

4 min read

Thus far the Government hasn’t acknowledged the political reality of the fisheries challenge. An exclusive deal for our fishing fleets may not be a good deal for the rest of the economy, or indeed for the fishing sector itself.

Fishing may be a small part of the economy but when it comes to national politics, on either side of the Channel, the stakes are high.

Fishing is an activity that triggers national pride.  For the coastal communities involved, it’s about the survival of a way of life.

The national post-Brexit UK-EU negotiations on a fisheries agreement have come to represent for some the UK’s ability to ‘take back control’. Both David Frost and Michel Barnier have identified it as a key sticking point.

With both sides trying to reach a deal by 1 July it will be a key indicator of whether ‘sufficient progress’ has been made for even the wider negotiations to progress after the summer. 

Contrary to public rhetoric, it was clear that most industry players are not seeking entirely to exclude EU vessels from UK waters. 

Given the current impasse, fisheries could literally lead to a no-deal outcome. So this is serious.

Recognising fisheries as a likely flashpoint, Brexit: fisheries was the first inquiry my sub-committee conducted after the EU referendum back in 2016.

Three and a half years later, very little progress has been made. 

We are still asking the same questions.

Earlier this year we held a follow-up inquiry on the most politically challenging points: after the transition period, who will be allowed to fish in UK waters, and how much will they be allowed to catch?

Contrary to public rhetoric, it was clear that most industry players are not seeking entirely to exclude EU vessels from UK waters. 

But there are big potential gains for the inshore fleet by ending non-UK access to the 6-12 mile zone.

There is a strong case for using a new method to agree how catch limits should be divided between the UK and EU, as the current method is scientifically out of date. 

Technically this is moving from the EU’s ‘relative stability’ regime to the UK’s preferred ‘zonal attachment’. 

Our report highlighted that this change will be strongly resisted by the EU, exactly as it has been.  Fishing communities have equally strong political support in France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.

We identified areas of potential compromise to bring the two sides closer together on a key disagreement, suggesting that while negotiations on the total allowable catch (TAC) of each fish stock should continue to happen annually, the UK and EU could work towards multiannual agreements for quota shares, to help provide stability for industry.

We may see the rights to fish in our coastal waters and economic zone as a separate issue from a future trade deal, but the other side will clearly not.

We wrote to Defra setting out our findings in mid-March, and after an understandable delay due to Covid-19, heard back from Minister Victoria Prentis in early May.

Her response was not encouraging.

It continued to conflate negotiations on TACs and on quota shares as if the two are inextricable, which they are demonstrably not.

The Minister’s reply ignored our concerns that the devolved administrations would not have a strong enough voice in the negotiations – the Scottish industry has the busiest fishing ports in the UK; and it argued that there is ‘ample time’ to reach a deal, which was not a view shared by any of our witnesses.

Perhaps most disappointingly, it failed to acknowledge the real-world in which some 80% of our fish catch is exported, the vast majority to the EU. 

We may see the rights to fish in our coastal waters and economic zone as a separate issue from a future trade deal, but the other side will clearly not.

Thus far the Government hasn’t acknowledged the political reality of the fisheries challenge. An exclusive deal for our fishing fleets may not be a good deal for the rest of the economy, or indeed for the fishing sector itself: time is short for the Government to square that circle.

 

Lord Teverson is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and chair of the House of Lords European Union Environment Sub-Committee.

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