Dreams and cold realities

With time fast running out, will it be a deal or no deal? Eddie Ford says both sides are nervous

You must have heard it hundreds of times already, almost to the point of screaming. But the Brexit talks do appear to be entering their concluding stages. Or, if you prefer, there is just time for a final drink at the last-chance saloon, at the 11th hour to midnight with the clock loudly ticking.

With tensions rising and the next few days looking crucial, Michel Barnier has been told that the European capitals want prior scrutiny of any possible deal with the UK before it is agreed. Concern is mounting, justifiably or not, that Barnier and his team may concede too much ground following his briefing to ambassadors on November 27 - where he spoke at length of his “flexibility” over aspects of customs and border controls. In the words of a senior European Union diplomat, “being in the dark makes people nervous”. Emphasising the message, a joint press conference was held on December 1 by Emmanuel Macron and Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo - talking about their determination to ensure EU interests were not damaged in the closing days of the negotiation. We must make sure, said De Croo, that the UK does not score “a decisive goal in the last minute”.

Attempting to sound a bit more emollient a few days earlier, Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, said both sides must avoid engaging in a blame game, as the “truth of Brexit” and its subsequent challenges become clear. He added that there was a “big incentive” to get a deal done, but two big issues remained unresolved. The first is over the dispute mechanism, through which either side will be able to hit back if the other seeks to gain a competitive advantage - the EU is worried that Britain might cherry-pick what it likes and what it does not. Instead, it is seeking a “ratchet clause” to ensure that, as either side develops its standards over time, the other side faces consequences, should it choose not to introduce equivalent regulations - with an independent panel to judge if one side’s refusal to move in tandem is giving it a competitive advantage. But unsurprisingly, given the ultra-Brexit agenda of the rightwing press, the UK government is resisting anything that might be seen as Brussels having the right of prior approval on domestic legislation.

The other outstanding issue is about the level of access that will be granted to European fishing fleets in UK waters, with no apparent resolution in sight, as the December 31 deadline looms large.

Now, fishing might seem a strange dividing line. It only accounts for between 0.1% and 0.2% of the British economy and employs just 24,000 people (leaving aside for now that ‘remain’-voting Scotland makes up 53% of the entire UK industry). The majority of fish we eat in Britain is imported, mainly from the EU, and in turn the majority of fish we catch is exported - once again mainly to the EU. This is because the two sides catch different types of fish, meaning that, overall, the UK imports 71% of what it eats and exports 80% of what it catches. Under the hated Common Fisheries Policy, finally established in 1983, the UK has most of the quotas for haddock and decent quotas for cod - meaning that in some respects it has a pretty good deal from the EU. Indeed, when the details of the CFP were finally worked out, the Tory minister for agriculture, fisheries and food, Peter Walker, described the agreement as a “superb agreement for British fishermen”. But don’t tell that to a Brexiteer, as they will explode in your face. Also don’t tell them that around 30% of the UK’s fishing quota is in the hands of five wealthy families, while two-thirds belongs to 25 profit-hungry companies.

In fact, the UK fishing industry is in danger of cutting off its nose to spite its face for all sorts of reasons. The industry depends to a large extent on shellfish, lobsters, crabs and langoustine (scampi or large prawn), which are quota-free or overwhelmingly allocated to the UK. These shellfish sales to the EU are worth £430 million a year - more than a quarter of all UK fish exports by value. Of course, there is no guarantee the UK will win new quotas in the Brexit negotiations as it goes without saying that other EU member-states will fight like cats and dogs to retain their access to UK waters. The CFP established the quotas on the basis of historic fishing rights and French fishermen especially fear Brexit will exclude them from ‘British’ waters, where they have fished for centuries - as have fishers from Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.


Of course, the point is that for Boris Johnson fishing matters politically and symbolically, as it immediately raises the question of sovereignty and the fate of struggling coastal communities - bringing back ‘control over our own waters’. A nation proud again and all that nationalist guff.

Weekly Worker readers might recall the spectacle of Johnson stupidly waving a smoked kipper during the final Tory leadership hustings last year, which had come from a “furious” fisherman on the Isle of Man. After decades of sending kippers like this one through the post, we learnt, Brussels bureaucrats now insisted that every kipper must be wrapped in a plastic ice pillow - “pointless, expensive and environmentally damaging ‘health and safety’,” Johnson railed, to the delight of the doddering Tory membership. Coming out of the EU, he declared, would bring an end to “regulatory overkill” and boost Britain’s economy. However, it turned out that the offending rule was set by Britain, not the EU - which patiently explained that Johnson’s smoked kipper falls outside the scope of the EU legislation. This only applied to fresh fish, not processed fishery products. Go and smoke that, Boris.

Referring specifically to fishing, EU officials say they will not fall into a Brexit “negotiating trap”, which they think is being laid by the British government - the latter seems to believe that running down the clock works to its advantage. Under this cunning plan, suggested Simon Coveney at a recent event for parliamentarians from across Europe, the UK was using fish as leverage in other parts of the trade talks - agreeing to compromises in other areas, including state aid and governance, and then using that to squeeze a last-minute compromise on fishing out of the EU, with the implied threat that otherwise the talks would collapse entirely, given the strict time limits. We are “not playing that game”, said Coveney - “if there isn’t an agreement on this, the whole thing could fall on the back of it”. No fish, no deal. As said many times by the EU, there will not be a trade deal with the UK unless the issue of fishing is resolved in a way that gives its member-states “sustainable” and “wide-ranging” access to British waters.

As things stand now, international law gives each state “the rights and duties of stewardship over the marine resources that fall under their own exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) - a strip of sea that extends up to 200 nautical miles beyond that state’s territorial waters. Under the CFP all areas are treated as one single market, logically enough, meaning foreign trawlers and companies own the rights to catch more than 130,000 tonnes of fish every year that are part of the UK’s fishing quota - equating to more than £160 million worth. When it comes to the history of the fish negotiations, or wars, the EU’s opening stance (led by the eight member-states that fish in British waters) was that the UK should accept the status quo - meaning that European boats can fish as normal in British waters. Clearly this was an untenable position that the EU had to row back on, as British negotiators want bigger catches, based on where fish live, so to speak, rather than the historical claims of foreign fishermen, some of which go back to the 14th century.

Even Barnier - a former French fisheries minister, as it happens - has described both the EU and UK positions as “maximalist”; it is a question of negotiating “between those two extreme positions”, taking into account the UK’s preferred “zonal attachment” model. But obviously the UK must compromise too, Barnier has said, as you cannot completely ignore historical claims - nor the fact that many coastal towns and villages in Europe are heavily dependent on the industry, some exclusively. Perhaps significantly, Angela Merkel has hinted at a trade-off between UK access to the EU’s single market in electricity and EU rights to catches in UK fishing waters - though she felt compelled to add that the EU does not need or want a Brexit deal “at any price”.

The scale of the difference between the two sides on fisheries was laid bare after Barnier told MEPs at the end of last week that the UK was seeking to repatriate 80% of the EU’s current catch in British seas. UK sources unconvincingly claimed that this “misrepresented” the British position, but regardless the British government on December 2 appeared to lower its demands by demanding at most 60% of catches in UK waters - leading one top EU diplomat to say that “we are quickly approaching a make-or-break moment” in the Brexit talks. So far, the EU has only offered to return between 15% to 18% - called “derisory” by the British negotiators.

The other remaining dispute over fishing lies in the length of a potential deal. Brussels has accepted a British proposal for a transition period on fishing rights after January 1, but there is no agreement on how long it should last or how it would actually work. In theory, a fishing transition period would give Britain time to build up its fleet to catch its increased quota, and the EU more time to adapt to a smaller share of the fish in UK waters.

More broadly, there is no agreement over whether officials should agree now what the future arrangements will be after the end of the transitional period or negotiate that during the period itself - which is what Britain wants. In response, the EU has said any fresh negotiations like this would also have to apply to the actual trade deal itself - but, with time running out fast, that might be a tad impractical. Having said that, the EU accepts - reluctantly no doubt - that the number of fish caught in UK waters will decrease and the British share will increase. Talks are currently focused on the quotas of each of the 140 species. Both sides warn that the situation in ongoing negotiations is still “extremely fluid”.

If Boris Johnson fails in his bid to ‘take back control’ of British waters, there will be an almighty backlash from many of his own backbenchers and the rightwing media. They cling on to the Brexit dream of Britain becoming an “independent coastal state”, having the right to decide “who fishes in our waters and on what terms” - despite Realpolitik and cold economic realities suggesting otherwise. For these ever simmering gammons, to have French or Spanish boats still fishing in British waters would be regarded as a national humiliation - if not unforgivable treachery.

Therefore it is quite conceivable, in spite of Boris Johnson’s general backtracking in terms of a hard Brexit, that the negotiations could break down and we end up with no deal. Not because that is the intent of either side - each recognises that a deal is in both their interests - but because everyone is tied to a particular set of politics. Fishing and the accompanying idea of an ‘island race’ is part of a British national mythology that could prove to be irresistible.