THE Prime Minister couldn’t have been clearer on fishing in her recent Mansion House speech. As the UK leaves the EU on March 29 next year, the UK would leave the Common Fisheries Policy. Quota shares would be rebalanced.
It is still the case that the UK will become a coastal state, separate from the EU, under international law next March, but the transition arrangement agreed in Brussels last week will ensure that we will be far from independent.
The status quo on quotas and access rights will continue; the UK fishing industry will be subject to all CFP rules but will not be in the room for crucial decisions on fisheries during the transition.
In the end it came down to a binary choice. In the political firmament, fishing has never occupied a higher priority, or received as much attention as it currently does. The Prime Minister, no less, had spelt it out. The UK would be an independent coastal state, outside the CFP. The UK would be in control over who fishes in UK waters and the obscene distortions in quota distribution would be addressed (UK’s nine per cent share of Channel cod, compared to France’s 84 per cent, in the most extreme example).
But in Brussels, earlier this month, the UK was given a binary choice: either a 21-month transition, largely on the EU’s terms, to smooth the UK’s departure from the EU; or crashing out of the EU, the single market and the customs union, unprepared, just over a year away.
Faced with this choice, the UK backed down and swallowed the package as a whole, including patently humiliating and disadvantageous terms on fishing.
The legal, ethical, and domestic political arguments on fishing are all in favour of the UK as an independent coastal state.
Under international law, the UK will be an independent coastal state from March 29 next year when it leaves the EU.
The UN Law of the Sea does give exclusive rights to coastal states to manage the fisheries and enjoy the benefits of the fisheries resources within their exclusive economic zones; along with responsibilities and duties to manage those fisheries responsibly and in co-operation when stocks are shared.
The Common Fisheries Policy does tie Britain into an asymmetric and exploitative relationship with the EU, hugely to the EU’s advantage and the UK’s disadvantage (EU vessels take four times as much out of UK waters as UK vessels catch in EU waters).
Our coastal communities have suffered severely through the terms of the UK’s entry into the EEC in 1973; especially by comparison with what could have been achieved as an independent coastal state.
The benefits to the UK of operating as an independent coastal state outside the CFP, with balanced reciprocal agreements with those countries with which we share stocks, are huge.
The current EU/Norway bilateral arrangement through annual fisheries agreements provides a relevant and successful model and precedent for a post-Brexit fisheries regime with those countries with which we share stocks.
The Parliamentary arithmetic does suggest that the Government would be severely punished if it sacrificed the fishing industry, in a repeat of 1973.
There is no escaping, however, that the transitional agreement is a reverse and a humiliation for the UK on fishing. Annual decisions on quotas will be made next year by the EU with only a notional obligation to consult the UK, although much of the fish will be caught in UK waters and the UK is, by far, the largest net contributor to the pot of resources.
UK Ministers have been quick to affirm that although concessions on fishing have been made to secure a deal on the transition, the Government’s objectives on fishing, as stated by the Prime Minister in her Mansion House speech, remain unaltered.
Holding the Prime Minister and her Government to account on that fundamental commitment, which will shape the future of fishing for decades ahead, will be the focus of the main UK fishing organisations and their allies in Parliament, over the next few critical months.
Barrie Deas is Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations.