Countdown to Brexit: 92 days – On the third day of Christmas, Brexit gave to me…

…Three French Coques - at least according to French President Emmanuel Macron: "There are two important things in the future relationship with the UK - trade rules to protect our interests and the issue of fishing and reciprocal access.  Our fishermen will be well protected. I assure you.”

Meanwhile the UK has said that it will “assume the rights and obligations of an independent coastal state under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea relating to our territorial waters” – extending out to 12 nautical miles – together with and an Exclusive Economic Zone extending out to 200 nautical miles or the median line between UK and other states.

As the Government gears up for negotiating the country’s future relationship with our European neighbours, it matters whether issues, such as fishing, will be dealt with under the terms of the ‘deal’ or a ‘no-deal’. 

The Withdrawal Agreement sets the terms of trade and relationship during a transition period to allow negotiations to take place, with a Political Declaration that sets out the framework for those discussions.

Under ‘no-deal’ the UK leaves the customs union, single market and all EU arrangements at the instant of leaving – in 92 days’ time at 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March 2019.

The Government will have to make bi-lateral arrangements on a number of topics according to the European Commission no-deal guidelines – in parallel with negotiating a wider agreement with the remaining EU27 on ‘common’ matters.

The bluntest warning has come from the Macron.  He has said that if the UK was unwilling to compromise in negotiations on fishing - which would need to make “rapid progress” – otherwise talks on a wider trade deal would be slow.

"It is a lever because it is in our mutual interest to have this future relationship."   

Macron: "We as 27 have a clear position on fair competition, on fish, and on the subject of the EU's regulatory autonomy, and that forms part of our position for the future relationship talks.

It is a reminder - if any were needed - that other countries have domestic political concerns that will have to be taken into account.

Reaction of Europe’s Fishing Industry

Other EU countries are heavily reliant on their fisheries accessing UK waters - and are alarmed at the prospect of losing the right to fish in Britain’s territorial waters.  

Denmark said that they would fight Britain’s attempts to take back control of its own waters - claiming that they had a historical right to fish in British waters which goes back to the 1400s.  They have claimed that the UN’s ‘Convention on the Law of the Sea’ - which both Britain and Denmark are signed up to - says that nearby countries must respect the “traditional fishing rights” of each other.

The Dutch fishing industry has ‘pleaded’ with the UK to be allowed to access British waters after Brexit - more than half of the Dutch fishing industries total catch comes from within UK waters.

The Belgian fishing fleet – although smaller - will also have major problems if Britain regains control of its waters.  Three-quarters of their boats and half of their catch comes from British waters.  Belgian fishermen are reported as claiming that their fishing industry could collapse if they are denied access to UK waters after Brexit.

The head of the European Fisheries Alliance - which represents over 18,000 European fishermen Gerard van Balsfoort –– said in an interview with the BBC that his members would simply ignore any attempts by the UK to take back control of its own fishing grounds stating: “If our boats were suddenly barred from UK waters, we would just carry on fishing there regardless … We know that the Royal Navy is not able to patrol or control all your waters.”

The issue of Britain not being able to protect and defend its own waters post-Brexit is one which has come up repeatedly.  Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and government minister has said that the UK could become a “laughing stock” if there were not enough Royal Navy vessels to protect British waters after leaving the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy.  He has accused the government of “amazing complacency” in its plans for protecting Britain’s fisheries after Brexit.

The Royal Navy has been reducing its strength for decades as it has been unnecessary as a member of the EU and CFP.  It presently has four ‘River-class’ patrol vessels which make up the ‘Fisheries Protection Squadron’.  One of them - HMS Clyde - is permanently based in the Falkland Islands and, in 2015, HMS Severn was sent on an eight month deployment in the Caribbean to protect British interests there rather than in UK waters.

Background: The Common Fisheries Policy

The UK, as a member of the EU, is governed by the Common Fisheries Policy.  This is an agreement whereby EU nations do not control their own territorial waters or set their own quotas to catch fish.  

Instead, fish are classed as a ‘common resource’.  Rules governing fishing quotas, catch levels, subsidies, discards and a whole range of other measures is set centrally by the European Commission.

Individual EU member states are responsible for policing their waters and enforcing the legislation, rules and regulations.

Each European country with a coastline and a fishing industry shares their territorial waters - called the ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ - with each other EU members.  All have the right to fish in each other’s waters - with the EU setting the catch quotas for each country, in each specific area, and species.

Trade in fish and fish products

The UK already exports large amounts of the fish caught in British waters to the EU, and imports much of the fish consumed domestically from countries which are in the EU and the wider EEA ‘Single Market’ - such as Iceland and Norway.

The future of fishing

Fisheries negotiations are going to be tense and complicated.  The British fishing industry is united in demanding that the UK takes its chance to reclaim its own fishing grounds after decades of what they see as mismanagement, unfair policies and practices which are hugely damaging to fish stocks under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.  The present rules – including CFP - have evolved over decades and may need to be: “maintained for the next five to ten years” due to the amount of time the UK would have to spend to set up new rules, regulations and laws on quotas, and fishing rights.

The productive and well-managed fisheries of Norway and Iceland are proof that fish stocks can be restored and fishing industries expanded outside of the EU.

Reference:  UK Government Technical Notice on ‘Commercial Fishing if there’s no Brexit Deal’ was updated on 19 December 2018.

“The UK will assume the rights and obligations of an independent coastal state under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) relating to our territorial waters (out to 12 nautical miles) and Exclusive Economic Zone (out to 200 nautical miles or the median line with other states).  We will be responsible for managing natural marine resources in these areas, and be able to control and manage access to fish in UK waters.”

“Access to fish in UK waters: While non-UK-registered vessels will no longer enjoy automatic access to UK waters (subject to any existing agreements relating to territorial waters), there will be no change to the rights and responsibilities of UK-registered vessels fishing in UK waters. They must continue to abide by the relevant legislation and licence conditions, including the economic link criteria.”

“UK-registered vessels will have to notify their intention to visit an EU designated port and present information relating to the vessel and catch on board. UK vessels may be subject to inspection: this could include a full document check, inspection of the catch and, where information has been provided electronically, database checks.”

“The UK will no longer be a member of RFMOs through EU membership.  As an independent coastal state, we will join all relevant RFMOs as quickly as possible.  The process of joining RFMOs and ratifying their conventions may take up to 6 months: there may, therefore, be a short gap in our membership. During this time, UK vessels may not be able to fish in international waters covered by RFMOs.”

Footnote: apologies for the pun – I couldn’t work “Three French Hens” into the opening – but coques seemed close and appropriate to the day and subject matter – thanks to our seasonal family get together and Neil for the suggestion!

John ShuttleworthComment