Fisheries and Brexit; #brokenbrexitbritain?

Inshore potters in Scarborough Harbour.

In 2016, after the Brexit referendum, I was lampooned and derided for posting a tweet with #brokenbrexitbritain in it and suggesting that Brexit would be a disaster for the UK in general and the fishing industry in particular.  Despite fisheries’ totemic position in the Brexit debate and a flotilla of fishing boats sailing up the Thames, including ironically the Dutch-owned Kirkella, to advertise what a wonderful thing Brexit would be, I didn’t believe for an instant that the Conservative party would sacrifice big business finance for the minuscule (0.15% GDP; equivalent to peppa pig sales) fishing industry.  I also believed that Real Politik would rule the day – the larger partner in international negotiations invariably wins.  It turns out, I was right – Brexit is a disaster for fisheries and I’m pretty sure will be problematic across our economy. My understanding is that there was only one person in the room during negotiations with any sort of fisheries expertise but that faced with talented and well prepared EU reps, they said virtually nothing during discussions.

Inside the EU we were a major player, often calling the shots amongst lesser members.  Outside the EU we are a very junior partner that has lost respect, position and power.

The Conservatives did however recognize the PR value of having the very vocal fishing industry on side and said all the right things . . making fishing a “red line” in negotiations and promising untold riches in fish and quota after Brexit when we took back control of our waters and sent Jonny foreigner packing back to their own fishing grounds.  Scottish Conservatives (yes there are still a few) in the NE where fishing is of huge economic and cultural importance were particularly rabid in their promotion of the benefits that Brexit would bring to fishing.  I’m pretty sure UKIP and bots infiltrated many fisheries groups on Facebook and were very vocal about regaining Sovereignty of our waters and utterly obnoxious to anyone who dared suggest life might not be that simple.  I stopped using Facebook because of it.

Nigel Farage was a UKIP MEP and sat on the Fisheries Committee. He turned up twice.

I’m also pretty sure that many of the more sane leaders of fishers’ organizations, including Mike Cohen, the then president of the National Federation of Fishing Organisations, were quietly opposed to Brexit.  Unfortunately their job was to present the majority view of their members and to seek whatever advantage they could get within those confines.  Fishermen are not stupid, far from it – thick fishermen don’t survive long in the complicated and unsafe business of fishing.  But many are not immersed in a world of complex legislation, international economics and verbose legal treaties.  They are generally strong-willed, independent and spend their lives swimming upstream against societal norms.  They resent the controls placed on them by “experts” (whom the government at the time were telling the world “we’ve had enough of”).  Having listened to Conservative and Labour governments (unfairly) blaming Europe for everything, they were quite happy to join a movement to give those in government, “the establishment” a kicking.  A load of people in power and in the shadows, supported by Russia and posing as anti-establishment were apparently quite happy to use them.

In its initial negotiationg position the EU made the link between EU boats fishing in UK waters andthe UK selling fish/fish products on markets on the EU continent.  If the UK unilaterally decided that EU boats could not fish in UK waters then the EU would unilaterally impose tariffs in fish exported from the UK to the EU.  Brexiteers were not impressed but have never seemed to grasp that sovereignty works both ways and that the EU are not some big, friendly and slightly stupid giant – they are or at least asiping to be a global superpower (despite the wishes of many Brexitears to see it rot from within). 

After speaking to a EU fish processing rep from Europe last year I felt a crumb of comfort when he said that the EU don’t have the capacity to process fish like the UK does and they have the same problems recruiting fish workers as we do.  Frozen fish is a truly international and global commodity and it is likely that where there are barriers to trade with the EU, other markets, albeit less profitable (or folk would be using them already) will open up.

A stack of lobster pots in Whitby

However the EU markets have been of central importance to small scale fishers using static gear (creels/pots) to target crab, prawns and lobster.  Live lobster and langoustine/prawns  are exported by vivier trucks direct from ports along the East coast to France, Spain and Italy.  This sector of the fleet has built itself up based on free and easy trade between the UK and Europe – it has been one of the success stories of UK fisheries over the last 20 years.  Although vulnerable to non-tariff impacts because they are exported live, lobsters and crabs are non-quota species and so not part of the pie-slicing exercise. Nephrops (prawn) quota is easily available and never used entirely and so any pie-slicing will have minimal effect. They also sell as both pub grub (breaded tails, scampi) and posh nosh (live) and so that market is more flexible. There are alternative markets to Japan and China for live produce but the majority goes to Europe.  China stopped buying crab recently because of what they say were contamination problems with the meat.  The real reason was likely to be to do with political and tariff disagreements with the EU.

The EU has played a blinder and the fishing industry has been gutted.  Not only have they won with fishing, there is also no agreement with regard to services (80% of the UK economy – the bits that pay our pensions).  There will be negotiations around fisheries in the future but after a few years out of the EU with reduced access to services, no change in fisheries and some distancing of the UK from Europe through lesser exchange of people, we will be weaker than we are now and even more prone to caving in the face of European might.  Next time we are threatened by the EU, Uncle Sam, having watched the Conservative government break international law with regard to the Irish Peace Treaty, and under the more Europhilic (and frankly sane) leadership of the Democrats will not be riding to our rescue.

I think perhaps the most shocking thread to the agreement is the fact that we have signed ourselves up to not being able to walk away – something that was perceived as a significant lever during the negotiations.  We can no longer flounce out of the room threatening to revert to WTO regulations – we have specifically signed up to not do this.  The phrase:

A Party shall not invoke the WTO Agreement or any other international agreement to preclude the other Party from suspending obligations under this Article.

Appears three times, and

A Party shall not invoke the WTO Agreement or any other international agreement to preclude the other Party from taking measures pursuant to this Article, including where those measures consist in the suspension of obligations under this Agreement or under a supplementing agreement.

Twice, as if to emphasise the point in the agreement.

Our main hope lies in the old adage that “a week is a long time in politics”.  Who knows who will be in power, whether the UK will still exist and what the attitude towards the EU will be in 2 or 4 years time.  We signed up to the European Project when we were the Sick Man of Europe and desperate for support and stability.  Having seen how utterly cancerous the UK is now and how primitively and vilely our politicians behaved towards the EU with schoolboy-like glee during the negotiations, I imagine that if we are ever allowed back into the club, the ties that bind us will be expensive in terms of sovereignty and pretty much unbreakable.

For more on this issue I recommend following @law_rich, @BD_Stew, @hhesterm, @matt_bevington, @MarineEconomics, @gwcarpenter, @ian_kinsey


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