The Brexiteers’ ‘take back our waters’ pledge is meaningless hype

Fishing, which represents 0.05% of the economy, is the only UK industry to merit its own sections in the Brexit agreements that Britain has negotiated with Brussels. Car industry? No mention. Banking? See “services”. No other British industry has provoked such polarised debate since the draft withdrawal agreement and the political declaration were published.

We are told that Theresa May has betrayed the British fishing industry. We are also told that she fought hard to protect its interests from the rapacious French and Danes. We are told that she kicked the whole can of fish down the road until 2020. Which is correct? Answer: a bouillabaisse of all three.

The draft Brexit deal to be put to EU leaders this weekend “betrays”, implicitly, the overblown promises made by some Conservatives and Ukip. It fights off demands by France, Denmark, Spain and others for guarantees of unchanged access to British waters post-Brexit. It leaves all details to be decided until July 2020 and conceivably not until 2022, marooning British fishers inside the EU policy for another two years and possibly another four years.

The political declaration recognises Britain’s right to become an “independent coastal state”, ending the automatic rights of Irish and continental boats to fish within the UK 200-mile limit. The document goes on, however, to say: “Within the context of the overall economic partnership the parties should establish a new fisheries agreement on, inter alia, access to waters and quota shares.” Some Conservative MP and fisheries lobbyists insist that that is a sell-out. Fish will become a chip on the negotiating table as Britain’s future trade terms with the EU are hammered out over the next 18 months.

Quite the opposite, says the government, backed by the biggest British fishing “union”, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. The clause makes it clear that fisheries will be dealt with separately from the rest of the “overall economic partnership”. There will be no trade-off of cod for car parts or herring for life insurance.

This is dancing on the head of a haddock. Both arguments miss the point. As Michel Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand pointed out in a tweet yesterday, the issue is not fish quotas in return for an overall trade deal. It is continued quotas in return for continuing British fish trade with the continent.

It is inconceivable that France, Denmark and the rest will allow Britain easy access to their fish markets if we destroy much of their fishing industries by barring their boats. In any case, tariff-free and easy exports for British fish and shellfish are more important to large parts of the British fisheries industry than the right to increased quotas.

Britain exports the majority of the fish that it catches and imports most of the fish that it eats. Many of the “fragile” UK coastal communities that are supposed to benefit from Brexit depend on harvesting shellfish, of which 90% is exported to the continent. We also sell the greatest part of our herring and mackerel to other EU countries.

This is the issue ignored by the “take back our waters” promises of the Brexiteers. It is the issue now implicitly recognised in the words of the draft Brexit political declaration.

If this is taken as a “betrayal” to parts of the fishing industry, it will come as a relief to many others.

Other EU governments plan to make a separate declaration at Sunday’s summit that a future fish deal must “build on” existing access and quota rights. This will make life even more uncomfortable for May but will commit other member states,not Britain. It suggests the future fish talks will be stormy – but we knew that already.

Who, in any case, would benefit from a mass repatriation of EU quotas to post-Brexit Britain? Existing quota allocations are dominated by big fishing interests. Five families control the majority of quotas in Scotland, as reported in the Guardian in June and a Greenpeace investigation confirmed last month. Smaller boats under 10 metres long have only 3-4% of the overall UK quota allocation.

The bill on post-Brexit, which received its second reading in the House of Commons this week, talks of “auctioning” off repatriated quotas to the highest bidders. Despite Michael Gove’s talk of reviving “fragile” coastal economies, this implies that the sea-lion’s share of the new quotas would go to thriving, big interests, not to struggling small boats and small communities.

There is a case for a post-Brexit reshuffle of the pattern of quotas laid down by the Common Fisheries Policy since the mid-1980s. Britain is unfairly penalised by some of the quotas, especially the small amount of cod allocated to English boats in the Channel.

But many of the fish caught by continental boats belong to species we don’t eat much (saithe and whiting) or species unfit for human consumption, which go to fatten Danish pigs.

According to the only detailed study that exists (University of the Islands and Highlands 2016), 58% of the fish caught in British waters are taken by other EU boats. But the report also shows that our share of the fish that we prize is much higher – 71% of the cod, 80% of the haddock, 58% of the mackerel, 85% of the langoustines.

There is scope for some reallocation post-Brexit, but not the offshore El Dorado that some fishermen’s leaders and Brexiteers claim. To “buy” continued easy access to EU markets, Britain will have to concede generous quotas to its neighbours (just as Norway already does).

If the present Brexit deal survives the House of Commons, there will be no change in fisheries rules until December 2020 or, if the transition is extended, until December 2022. This will disappoint many fishermen but it offers a period in which all sides – government, big interests, small boats, fishers and traders – can throw propaganda overboard and begin to discuss the real long-term interests of the majority of UK fishers and coastal communities.

John Lichfield is a former EU correspondent based in France

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