Why is fishing so important to Brexit?

The symbolic issue of access to British waters remains a major barrier to an agreement

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 23 December 2020 12:27 GMT
We are working very hard on Brexit deal, says negotiator

The UK is poised to crash out of the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of December 2020, unless a free trade deal agreement can be forged in the next couple of days.  

The Brexit negotiating teams have been telling us for months that fishing rights remain one of the biggest sticking points. So what’s at stake for both sides? And could a trade deal really break down because of fish?

What do both sides want when it comes to fish?

The UK is widely regarded to have been given a raw deal under the previously EU common fisheries policy, and Boris Johnson’s government has been agitating for a new settlement to rectify this and symbolise post-Brexit new “sovereignty”.

No 10 negotiator David Frost is thought to have been pushing for up to 80 per cent of the stock EU fleets have been entitled to catch in British waters to be handed over to British fleets – but is said to have lowered its demand to between 50 to 60 per cent in recent days.

But Brussels negotiator Michel Barnier reportedly offered the UK only 15 to 18 of the bloc’s fishing rights in British waters at the end of November. Downing Street sources described the proposed figures as “derisory”, dealing a blow to those who hoped the issue could be sorted out in early December.

What about a transition period for fishing rights, so everyone can adjust?

The UK is believed to have offered a three-year “phase-in” to give EU fishing fleets more time to adjust to some level of reduction in their catch in British waters.

The EU has been keen to see a much longer period of adjustment for European vessels, with Brussels said to have demanded 10 years of “total access” to British waters last week.

There have been reports in recent days that the UK is prepared to allow a phase-in period of up to five years access – but Brussels would have to hand back at least 50 per cent of its current access (much more than the 15 to 18 per cent said to have been offered).

Emmanuel Macron (centre) with EU Council president Charles Michel (left) and German chancellor Angela Merkel (right)

Why have fish become so important?

The issue has come to carry huge symbolic importance, far outweighing its actual economic value. Downing Street saw fishing rights as a chance to claim a clear win – since the UK would be reclaiming its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and reclaiming a greater share of fish in British waters.  

Mr Barnier had warned the UK against trying to use it as a “bargaining chip” when there more important areas to focus on.

Yet French president Emmanuel Macron and his ministers have also been particularly keen to engage in defiant rhetoric about protecting French fishermen – aware that giving away too much access would be politically toxic ahead of an election in 2022.  

Experts and commentators have pleaded with both sides to look at the bigger picture. The UK fishing industry was worth only £446m in 2019. The car industry was worth around £49bn last year, while the financial services industry was worth around £125bn to the British economy.

What are the chances of an agreement on fish?

It’s hard to say. On Sunday night there were reports that both sides had all but finalised terms on fishing rights, with EU sources cited talking about a breakthrough. But both sides have pushed back against the idea of significant progress on Monday.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said on Monday: “Having heard from Michel Barnier this morning, really the news is very downbeat. There was news last night on some media sources that there was a breakthrough on fishing. That is absolutely not the case from what we’re hearing this morning.”

Many analysts believe fishing access become something of distraction in recent months, and the even thornier issue of level-playing agreements – a set of common rules and standards for business – remains the biggest barrier to a deal.

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