The Fish Fight Reveals Ultimate Brexit Truths

A Brexit trade deal may be announced soon, or it might not. But it’s in many ways fitting that fishing rights are seen as the final hurdle to be cleared. This one policy area — complex, emotive and wrapped in historical rights and grievances — encapsulates both what’s so infuriating about the European Union in the eyes of many Brits and the ineluctable realities of economic interdependence. 

What surprises most people is how small the economic stakes are. While some $1.5 billion in fish is sold each way annually, fisheries account for just 0.12% of the U.K. economy and employ only 24,000 workers. It’s a sardine-sized share of the EU’s economy too. A failure to secure a trade deal because of fish would probably indicate that one party wanted to kill the whole process anyway. 

That isn’t to downplay the problem. Trade deals often founder on apparently minor details. And the fish issue is totemic for Brexiters and politically explosive for EU coastal states, especially France where unpopular President Emmanuel Macron has lots of appeasing to do.  

Put simply, the EU wants continued access to Britain’s rich fishing waters. You can see why: More than half of the fish and shellfish caught in U.K. waters is landed by EU countries. Britain wants to reclaim control over its exclusive economic zone (which under international law extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coast) and leave the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which sets quotas for how much and what kind of fish EU nations are allowed to catch.

While the U.K. would seem to have the leverage here, EU negotiator Michel Barnier has linked “access to waters” to “access to markets.” This means the EU can withdraw preferential treatment on tariffs and goods trade at any point if it’s unhappy with the fisheries settlement.

The Fish Fight Reveals Ultimate Brexit Truths

There are old scores to settle. While Europe’s fishermen have been working in U.K. waters for centuries (Belgium claims rights in British seas were granted to fishermen in Bruges in perpetuity by King Charles II in 1666), the British Conservative government of 1973 sacrificed the fishing industry’s interests in its accession to the European Economic Community. It’s that status quo Barnier is cheekily seeking to preserve now.

Fish disputes have a nasty habit of getting messy, even violent. During the “Cod Wars” of the 20th century, NATO was compelled to intervene to calm disputes between Icelandic gunboats and Royal Navy escorts protecting British trawlers. French and British fishermen clashed as recently as 2018 over scallops. And just last week London said it was readying the Royal Navy to protect British waters post-Brexit and French fishermen threatened blockades.

The Fish Fight Reveals Ultimate Brexit Truths

While the EU will have to give up some rights here, the Brexiter argument — that the U.K. should simply control its territorial waters — is deceptive in its simplicity. A failure to get a deal on fish would doom the wider trade deal. That wouldn’t just be bad news for the British economy, it would devastate the very industry Boris Johnson claims to be protecting.

There are some 73 different fish stocks subject to quotas in U.K. waters. Some are preferred by Brit consumers and others by Continental palates. Even if Britain managed to repatriate all the quotas in its seas, it doesn’t have the vessels or landing capacity to fish or process it. It would be additionally self-defeating because British fishermen export 70% of their catch, with France their largest market. Having tariffs would be painful. Add in the burden of inspections, health certificates and export documents and there would be truckloads of rotting fish to deal with.

Brexiters are also unhappy that half of England’s current EU quota — 160 million pounds ($177 million) worth of fish — is in the hands of Icelandic, Spanish and Dutch vessels with British flags. Most of these boats fish for species that aren’t popular with British consumers, but the U.K. wants more of them processed on its shores to create jobs. Fishing industry lobbies want the government to go even further by barring the foreign boats.

Scotland is key, too. It holds 60% of the U.K. quota and largely fishes with its own vessels. The promise to take back control over fishing waters has been a key pledge of Scottish Conservatives. With the Scottish National Party pushing ever harder for independence, Johnson is determined to ensure they can’t use a compromise to bolster their case.

The Fish Fight Reveals Ultimate Brexit Truths

While the differences are real, the fish dispute is also a convenient foil for other areas of the trade negotiations where the stakes are much higher. The two sides need each other; there’s plenty of scope to make any maritime agreement reviewable in the future or even set different rules for different types of fish.

Still, it is only in the final hours of trade negotiations that you know what really matters to both sides. If Johnson were unable to clinch a trade deal now, it would be, as he once said in another context, a failure of statecraft. Cod help him if that happens.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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