What is the dispute between the UK and the EU over fishing?
British fishing communities have felt that they were sacrificed at the time of the British negotiations to join the European Economic Community 50 years ago.
Only a few hours after accession talks had begun on 30 June 1970, the UK government was told that a common fisheries policy had been agreed by the original six members of the community. It was a fait accompli.
The UK had to hand over equal access to its waters and the catch quotas for each country were fixed on the basis of the recorded catches of the various national fleets between 1973 and 1978. It led to some very unpalatable outcomes, including those in the Channel, where the UK’s share of the cod quota stands at 9%, whereas France’s share is 84%.
Today, EU fishing fleets catch 675,000 tonnes of fish in UK waters – 60% of the total caught in the UK sector. British fishermen catch just 88,000 tonnes, or 16% of the fish taken in EU waters.
As an “independent coastal state” outside the EU, the UK will take control of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), stretching up to 200 nautical miles from the coast. The UK government wants to replace the current system with one of “zonal attachment”, which would offer a significant increase in catches for British fishing fleets.
There would be annual talks on access to UK and EU waters. Shares would be based on the percentage of each species of fish in each EEZ. The EU side fear that this will devastate their coastal communities. It is also politically toxic for Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who is facing an election in 2022.
Why is it so important to both sides?
The value of the fishing industry to the British economy is tiny in comparative terms. It employs just 0.1% of the national workforce and contributes £1.4bn to the UK economy – or 0.1% of GDP.
Fishing is also only really a priority issue for eight EU member states – Ireland, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
But the fishing industry is both romantic and vital for the economic health of often already run-down coastal communities. No politician wants to be seen betraying these communities and losing their votes.
How close is a deal?
The EU has been stubbornly sticking to the position that only the status quo will suffice. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has been particularly keen that the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, offers little to the British side.
But with just 10 weeks to go before the UK leaves the transition period, minds are being focused. Paris remains adamant that there is no wriggle room on the position of France’s small boats in the Channel. The argument is that these communities have been fishing in British waters for centuries and it would be politically toxic for French crews to lose out to the British as the UK leaves the EU.
The UK offer of a three-year transition period has been dismissed as three years on death row. But there is greater flexibility in the Celtic Sea and the waters around Scotland. This is important for Johnson, who needs to show some benefit to Brexit to Scottish communities at a time when Nicola Sturgeon is ramping up her demands for another independence referendum.
On Friday, Macron admitted that things would change for France’s fishing fleet, but insisted that a mutually satisfactory compromise could be struck at the 11th hour.
What might a compromise look like?
The wonder of fishing agreements is that they can be extremely complex. Who has won and lost might not be immediately obvious. It could come down to a species-by-species divvying-up. The final agreement will see British boats swallowing up EU quotas in their waters. But in turn they will lose quotas in EU waters.
Is it the main stumbling block to a wider trade deal?
There are much more economically significant issues to be solved. The problem of maintaining fair competition by avoiding regulatory undercutting or unfair subsidies is extremely difficult.
The UK government does not want to follow the Brussels rulebook and so new mechanisms need to be designed. For many Brexiters, the whole point of leaving the EU is to deregulate and Downing Street is also of that opinion. It will be difficult to square that circle.
The EU side is also convinced that Johnson is playing a tactical game with fisheries. Macron said on Friday that it would be the one area in the event of a no-deal where the UK would be a winner, and that is why the prime minister is talking it up.
Macron is not convinced the UK is really willing to let an agreement fall on fish. He is probably right. But that is not self-evident.