Boris Johnson has been warned not to sell out the fishing industry in trade talks with the EU, as it emerged that the UK is offering a three-year transition period for European fleets in the hope of securing a trade deal.
Downing Street did not deny reports that a compromise offer put forward by London would allow EU catches in British waters to be “phased down” between 2021 and 2024 to allow time for continental coastal communities to adapt.
One EU diplomat was reported as saying that the proposals tabled by Mr Johnson’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, meant “it doesn’t look like fisheries will stand in the way of an agreement”.
The development came as the UK sealed a deal with Norway involving annual negotiations on share of catch, something the EU has refused to offer Britain.
The head of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations told reporters that the industry would be ready to countenance a brief transition, but warned that anything which smacked of “Common Fisheries Policy-lite” would be “unacceptable”.
Barry Deas said that ministers had given repeated assurances that fishermen’s interests would be protected, but admitted there remain “concerns and fears” that they could be sacrificed in the last-minute scrabble to secure an agreement by the prime minister’s 15 October deadline and avoid no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020.
“What we wouldn’t agree to is surrendering fishing rights in order to have a trade deal," said Mr Deas.
“There is no expectation within the UK fishing industry that the UK will back down on fisheries. If anything, the commitments that have been made to the industry are stronger now than when the negotiations started. We’ve been given clear and unequivocal commitments.”
In a letter to Lord Frost, the head of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation (SFF), Elspeth Macdonald, said it was “imperative at this crucial stage that the UK remains steadfast”, warning: “Anything given away now will never be regained.”
But the spectre of Mr Johnson throwing his DUP allies under a bus with his last-minute acceptance of a border down the Irish Sea in last year’s EU divorce deal hangs over the process as negotiations enter their endgame.
Mr Deas warned that it would be a “big mistake” for the prime minister to accept a trade-off between fishing rights and the wider needs of the economy.
“The example from the past is a matter of public record, and of course we have our concerns and fears," said the NFFO chief executive. "But all the signals we are receiving are that fishing is absolutely at the top of the agenda.”
The transition proposal is an attempt to close the gap between the EU’s preferred option of a Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)-style long-term allocation of quotas for fish in UK territorial waters and London’s demand for annual negotiations, with national shares determined according to the latest scientific judgement of the “zonal attachment” of fish species to particular areas of sea.
“It’s obvious that the time frame for a move towards zonal attachment is one of the movable elements in the negotiations,” said Mr Deas.
“I think the UK would be very resistant to any long-term agreement that looked like a CFP-lite."
A 10-year agreement would be “unacceptable”, while an earlier proposal by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for 20 years “is not going to happen”, he said.
But he added: “Some kind of transitional arrangement is one of the things under discussion. The key point for us is the destination. We must have absolute certainty that at the end of this we have access to the full quota shares that we as an independent coastal state have a right to expect.
“There is a deal to be done which does allow EU vessels to fish in UK waters in return for movement towards zonal attachment."
In her letter to Lord Frost, Ms Macdonald said: “It is imperative at this crucial stage that the UK remains steadfast. Securing the right outcome from these fisheries negotiations will deliver an immediate and demonstrable economic benefit.
“We have never been in a stronger position than we are now, but anything given away now will never be regained. SFF urges you to remain firm on fishing, and not to concede our precious natural resources and our sovereignty.”
Mr Deas said: “The fishing industry’s fear right from the beginning has been that we would again be sold out as we were in the 1970s.
“That fear hasn’t gone away. But on the other hand, I think fishing has a symbolism that gives it a special status and that is why I think fishing has gone to the top of the list of priorities.
“In some ways, it is a litmus test for Brexit. We will know very soon – this year – whether we have got a good deal on fishing or not, whereas some of the other aspects of Brexit will take years or decades to work out.” Mr Deas said that the prime minister should not forget the strong feeling among MPs of all parties, the media and the general public that the UK fishing industry had got a raw deal from the Common Fisheries Policy over the past 40 years and that now was the time to fix it.
“I think the government would find it very difficult politically amongst its own supporters, never mind the kicking it would get in the press and from the fishing industry, if it came back with a poor deal,” he said.
“It is possible to be over-confident, but the signals we have been receiving from government are everything we could have asked for.”
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