Fishing has always been an emotional issue in the U.K.'s relationship with the European Union, and it's no surprise that it is one of the final outstanding issues in the post-Brexit trade talks. Sea-fishing accounts for only 0.1% of GDP in Britain and barely 12,000 jobs. So, it is puzzling that this industry could yet scupper the chances of a Brexit deal with the European Union (EU). The EU insists that, without an agreement on fish, there can be no trade deal. And the failure to agree on one would wreak much broader economic damage. Fishing remains one of the hardest issues in the Brexit talks. Why?
The explanation lies in seafishing’s importance as a token of the central claim of the campaign to leave the EU in 2016: that Britain is “taking back control” of its political and economic destiny. The desire to exercise that control over British waters was a powerful force driving Brexit. Brexiteers believe, with justice, that the EU’s common fisheries policy is unfair on British fishermen. For many species, European fishermen have a much larger share of fish quotas in Britain’s coastal waters than do the British themselves. For Channel cod, for example Britain has a 9% share compared with France’s 84%; for Celtic Sea haddock the numbers are 10% and 66%.
The British government wants a big increase in shares based on the location of fish, not historic rights and annual negotiations like those Norway undertakes with the EU. The EU prefers the current system, arguing that annual negotiation works with Norway because only seven species are covered and quotas seldom change, whereas with Britain the species number almost 100 and the whole point is to adjust catches to ensure fish stocks are sustainable.
Because Britain has more coastal water than any EU country, its negotiating position appears strong. Yet some 80% of the fish landed in Britain is exported, mostly to the EU, whereas 70% of the fish consumed in Britain is imported, largely from the EU. Failure to agree on a deal would disrupt two-way trade in a highly perishable product. Britain has neither the capacity to catch all the fish now taken by EU fishermen nor enough patrol boats to police its waters. And the law is messy: many EU firms have bought up British fishing quotas, and they cannot easily or costlessly be deprived of them now.
Furthermore, the most valuable part of the industry is no longer catching but processing, which depends heavily on free trade. Even pro-Brexit Grimsby, where processing is now the main activity, is anxious about losing business if there is no agreement with the EU. James Kane of the Institute of Government, a think-tank, cites a Dutch university study of 2018 which concluded that, without a deal, Britain would lose more from tariffs and non-tariff barriers on fish trade than it would gain from exclusive access to its own waters.
At issue in the negotiations is the share of the catch in British waters allocated to British fleets, and the period over which the new quotas would be phased in. Britain is reported to have demanded up to an 80% share, phased in over three years. The EU, with France most vehement in its demands, was said to be seeking a ten-year extension of current arrangements, and up to 85% of the catch. In recent days, amid the fog of last-ditch negotiations, leaks from both sides have hinted at a deal on both points, with Britain said to have cut its quota demand to 50-60%, with a five-year phase-in.
That still leaves a big gap with the EU’s reported position. But even if it is enough to reach a deal, it would horrify some on both sides. Brexiteers will cry betrayalthe moment Britain agrees to let EU trawlers keep on hoovering up “British” fish. And feelings on the continent are just as strong. Herring (almost all caught in British waters) are close to the hearts, and stomachs, of the Dutch. The French have fished in British waters for centuries.
Politics makes everything harder. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, faces a tough re-election battle in early 2022 and will want to placate the country’s fishermen. The British government fears nationalist gains in next year’s election in Scotland, where most fish are caught (but which voted in favour of Remain). But Boris Johnson needs a trade deal, and without agreement on fish, he may find it impossible to land one.