If the steady stream of Ministers heading for the exit delays negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, we could find ourselves in an extended period where our fishing industry just complies with the rules, rather than having someone in the room standing up for it. Mr Barnier has already suggested that it will last for at least two years, which could be an underestimate if we consider how long it took to reach the much simpler withdrawal agreement.
We may have to suffer the CFP for quite a few years to come and it may change to the advantage of the remaining members of the EU, and not to ours. We may lose markets to sell fish into, or at the very least, find that our competitive advantage disappears because we will be subject to the same tariffs as other non-member states. I hope they will be the same tariffs, but going by the poor negotiation results that we have seen so far, we may end up with higher tariffs that reduce our fleets’ traditional competitive advantage.
It will not come to that, of course, because the new fishing deal has already been written into the withdrawal agreement by the departing Brexit Secretary. On page 4, the political declaration tells us that he has agreed to a new fisheries agreement with access to UK waters and assigned quota shares being
“in place in time to be used for determining fishing opportunities for the first year after the transition period.”
That means that the common fisheries policy will carry on regulating our fishing fleets after we have left the EU. Taking back control has never sounded hollow.
It is a sad state of affairs for this Secretary of State to have to deliver that news, because in March he said that he feels a
“debt to fishing communities who are looking to government to deliver a better deal for them” and promised that he would ensure that our
“fishermen’s interests are properly safeguarded” during the implementation period. That period starts on
Once the deals are done and we finally leave the CFP, however, we will still be in it. It is a conjuror’s trick, and not a good one. Last year, the Secretary of State spoke to leaders of the Danish industry and guaranteed them continued access to our waters after Brexit. Earlier this year, the UK embassy in Spain reassured Spanish trawlers that their access to UK waters was assured. The withdrawal agreement replaces common decision-making on the CFP as a member of the EU with CFP rules handed down from Brussels and no input from Ministers from these isles on behalf of the industry here. Well done to the Brexiteers—they certainly landed a whopper there.
The Norwegians sometimes describe their relationship with the EU as a “fax democracy”, because the rules just come down the line from Brussels. That seems to be what removing ourselves from the EU will do, except, of course, that the European maritime and fisheries fund money will vanish. We have heard nothing about what might replace that in due course.
We will be left to accept the rules that are handed down, we will lose access to the decision-making body and the funding from the EU, and we will have to deal with the consequences of the Government’s poor negotiation techniques and the uniquely weak position that they have left us in. When the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food gave evidence to the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee 26 months ago, he said that
“we have to recognise historic rights…In some sectors, for instance on scallops, access to the French part of the channel is quite important to the UK industry. I accept there are trade-offs. All these things will be a matter for negotiation in a new world.”
During the referendum campaign, the Secretary of State for Scotland said:
“I think the fishermen are wrong in the sense there is no way we would just go back to Scotland or Britain controlling British waters. There are a whole host of international rules and agreements even if we were outside the EU which would impact on their activities.”
Then of course there is the same problem agriculture has in relation to workforce planning. We will lose access to EU workers, who make up 58% of Scotland’s fish processing workforce and 70% in Grampian, where the Secretary of State’s family business was based.
Scotland’s seafood and fishing industries could be destroyed without access to EU markets. Scotland’s processing industry could be irreversibly damaged without access to EU workers. We also have to consider Scottish farmed salmon, the UK’s most valuable food export, and how losing the market advantage over Norwegian salmon that EU membership gives us could be utterly devastating. Scotland stands to lose a lot without access and there is little indication of how any of it might be replaced.