Environment Politics

Fishing: The Troubled Waters of Brexit

By Joseph Eyre

Michel Barnier (the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator) only cares about fish. At least, that’s according to one EU diplomat, whose neat quote summarises just how important and symbolic fishing has become during the arduous Brexit process.

Making up just 0.12% of the UK’s GDP, and employing under 0.1% of its workforce, this relatively small industry has had a disproportionate impact on the country’s prospects of securing a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. Insistence on access to fish in the waters surrounding the UK by EU coastal states – such as France, Denmark, and Belgium – has been consistently rebutted by the UK. Based on Britain’s most recently published negotiating approach, this issue alone could lead to a ‘No-Deal’ exit, because “regardless of progress in individual workstreams, nothing is agreed in these negotiations until a final overall agreement is reached.” Given this, it would be right to ask how such a small industry has come to be one of the main obstacles for the UK reaching a free trade agreement with its largest trading partner and closest neighbour.

Fishing disputes are fairly common occurrences and generally revolve around nations claiming and exerting sovereignty over their ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ (or EEZ). Currently, these zones, and the rights to them, are set out and regulated by the ‘UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’ but despite the extensive regulation, disagreements still arise. Perhaps the most significant ongoing dispute is between China and other coastal nations in the South China Sea such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. China’s claims to islands throughout the South China Sea extend far into the EEZ’s of the other nations. Despite an International Court of Justice ruling in 2016 that China’s claims are illegal, confrontations are common, with coastguard vessels and warships frequently becoming involved. As this shows, maritime territorial disputes can easily become security issues.

Thin Ice

While it may be difficult to envisage such situations involving warships in fishing disputes occurring in Europe, it was as recently as the 1970’s that Northern European nations were engaged in the ‘Cod Wars.’ While they weren’t conventional wars, they did involve significant confrontations between warships of the British and Icelandic navies in the North Atlantic, resulting in injuries, death, and damaged military ships, between 1958 and 1973. The outcome was in Iceland’s favour, leading to diminished access for British fishing fleets and the establishment of the legal EEZ’s mentioned above. This loss of access devastated fishing communities across the UK. Thousands of fishermen and shore-based workers in ports such as Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood lost their jobs, and the economic scars remain to this day.

Bearing in mind this context of significant economic, security, and sovereignty implications, and the emphasis on regaining sovereignty by Britain’s Leave campaign, it is easy to see why the UK wishes to regain exclusive access to its EEZ. It is also easy to see why EU coastal states are keen to preserve the status quo which, in this case, is the European Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), in which Britain has participated for 50 years. Developed during the 1970s, the CFP’s primary purposes are to set sustainable catch quotas for EU countries and allow shared access to a common EU Exclusive Economic Zone. Under the policy, EU coastal states such as Ireland, France, and Belgium have had access to fish in UK waters and vice versa. 

As a 2016-17 House of Lords European Union Committee report has noted, however, catch statistics show a substantial imbalance in the benefits of access to one another’s water. Essentially, EU nations benefit more from fishing access to the UK EEZ than the UK benefits from fishing access to the EU EEZ. These fishing rights have therefore become one of the elements which strengthen Britain’s negotiating hand. On the other side of the channel, European leaders such as Emmanuel Macron are keen to avoid communities built around fishing, like Bolougne-sur-Mer which cites seafood as the “locomotive de l’économie” (engine of the economy), from suffering a fate similar to that of Grimsby and Hull in the 1970’s.

Therefore, until recently, both sides of the negotiations have refused to make any concessions regarding fishing. As in many areas of the negotiations, the most vocal voice in opposition to concessions on the EU side has been France, with French lawmakers previously calling for a hardline approach in this area. The UK likewise made clear it had no intention of waving over fishing rights and for much of the negotiations there has been little or no movement. Progress, however, has recently been made and a deal in this area does now seem possible.

Calmer Waters?

An EU diplomat has suggested that Macron’s hardline approach is primarily “political show” as he must be seen to defend the interests of fishermen who may end up jobless, especially considering he is facing reelection in 2022. Macron himself acknowledged in late October that EU fishermen may have to accept that their catches will be reduced.

While negotiations are ongoing, it is still unclear whether the UK and EU will reach a deal. However, based on recent information, it appears that the issues surrounding fishing now stand a reasonable chance of being resolved. How this minor industry came to be so important is perhaps not as surprising as it may initially seem. The fact that it was one of Britain’s strong points in the negotiations means it was always likely to be used, as far and as much as possible, as a ‘bargaining chip.’ Negotiating with a much larger and more influential partner, Britain’s advantages were inevitably going to be deployed for leverage.

Furthermore, regardless of its use as a tool in negotiations and despite a substantial body of international law regulating the matter, fishing disputes are a common area in which states clash in regards to sovereignty. While the Cod Wars were hopefully the last physical confrontations between European nations, disputes of this nature will likely continue, albeit with less intensity, because even if a deal is reached regarding fishing, it will likely entail future negotiation of transitional arrangements.

This report was compiled by Joseph Eyre. You can find Joseph on Twitter here.