Brussels wants to have our fish and eat them

Canada’s first independent foray into international diplomacy came about through fish. The Halibut Treaty of 1923 with the United States marked the Dominion’s opening entry onto the world stage distinct from London. 

Appropriately enough, it was also fish that seventy years later prompted the UK in turn to reflect on where its own deep and enduring loyalties and interests lie. In 1995, while the ‘Turbot War’ pitted the Canadian Government against Spanish trawlers backed up by Brussels, Cornish trawlers flew the Maple Leaf flag in support.

It could hardly have been otherwise. The Common Fisheries Policy was introduced by deceit, designed specifically by existing EEC members to prejudice all four 1972 applicant states bringing with them their extensive territorial waters. The terms were so bad, Norway’s fisheries minister resigned, and the scandal twice kyboshed attempts by its politicians to join. 

And then the Spanish joined. 

By the time of 1990s turbotism, the prospect of Spanish skippers being given free rein to pillage the Grand Banks while expecting other countries to compensate them for the environmental damage was already a familiar refrain to British coastal communities. Accession by the Iberian states to the EC in 1986 brought with it a major cull of the Community’s existing fishing fleets, the UK and Ireland paying the heaviest price because they sat on the richest home waters and were expected proportionally to make way. 

Accession further demanded hundreds of millions more from the Brussels budget, spent both buying up British boats so they could be broken up, while scandalously upgrading their competitors so they could catch more. Spanish ports meanwhile received millions in subsidies in regional and development aid. 

EU fisheries policy for fifty years has been more than a mess: it’s been a disgrace. Indeed, the CFP has been a latterday version of Metternich’s jibe about the Holy Roman Empire: it is hardly Common, nor really about Fisheries, and cannot be dignified with being much of a Policy either.

Which brings us to today. Under the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, fisheries was meant to have been settled by June 2020 (a deadline, incidentally also for the EU to have come up with an assessment on equivalence in financial services). Under Article 74 of the Political Declaration, the text expressly stated that, “The Parties will use their best endeavours to conclude and ratify their new fisheries agreement by 1 July 2020 in order for it to be in place in time to be used for determining fishing opportunities for the first year after the transition period.”

But this has not happened. The EU negotiators have stalled, instead demanding impossible levels of access, and rights that are incompatible with the UK’s new legal status, itself expressly confirmed in the text. Team Barnier want to have their fish and eat it. And it’s not even their fish any more.

This is a serious breach of the transition agreement. The motive is odious and obvious: the European Commission is trying to keep this issue live and link it with other issues, contrary to the text of the withdrawal settlement, in order to extort a better quota for themselves. It’s precisely the reason why the Swiss under Paul Jolles sagaciously negotiated their own association deals in bulk and separate from one another, to the longstanding fury and impotence of pushy middle-ranking Brussels officials. 

But such spotlighted mendacity serves as a useful prompt for three reasons.

Firstly, it is a reminder that for all their protestations of continental fraternalism and esprit communautaire, the EU institutionally is not all sweet love and apple pie – except in an American Pie sense. The wider the institutional moat between the UK and EU after Brexit, the happier it will be for all concerned, because the Commission having less power will be less tempted to try to abuse it.

Secondly, it demonstrates that the EU is not negotiating in good faith, and the UK now needs to be earnestly prepared for a minimalist deal at point of transition. EU-Singapore FTA terms were already the maximum on offer in the short term because of the ratification process and the risk of delay; that is now looking optimistic. We might hope for a Canadian-style CETA over the long term, but we need to be geared up for WTO plus the usual uncontentious several dozen minor bilaterals the EU readily signs with developed economies. 

Team Barnier for negotiating reasons claims it won’t sign such microdeals but the Commission has even now already identified a score or so that it will. 147 EU-US bilaterals and multilaterals operate on top of WTO terms.

Thirdly, and usefully, it serves as a prompt to remind us that we need to effectively and not just nominally take back control of our waters. To do that, we need to have the assets, platforms, and budgets to patrol them. The Royal Navy and RAF need to be operating in tandem with the coastguard, HMRC, fisheries, and illegal migration managers, because the issues relating to sovereign control over our home waters, EEZ, and maritime areas of interest overlap. 

That needs the funding commitment, delivering in particular the visible, credible and capable presence to enforce sovereign rights and catch transgressors. There is still just enough time to hire in the platforms – “sloops” if you like to be historical – from the private sector to provide a surge boost of capacity at the critical point of transition when resolve will be tested.

From that in turn, it reminds us of the wider need to drop the charlatan’s charter of assigning a two per cent share of GDP for Defence, and incrementally raising it to three per cent to cope with a more uncertain and more asymmetric world, involving multiple and significant global threats.

So much is interlinked. Working out the right policy for our fisheries and maritime oversight more generally reminds us of our island status, our global ties, our sovereign requirements, and our true friends. It turns out that thinking about fish and not just eating them is essential for Whitehall’s grey cells.

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