The Difficulty That May Sink the Brexit Commerce Talks: Fishing

LONDON – On a larger scale, fishing is a tiny industry. Only 12,000 people in the UK fish out of 6,000 ships and contribute less than half a percent of gross domestic product – less than the upscale London department store Harrods, according to one analysis. The same applies to most of the continental European countries.

As negotiations between the UK and the European Union on a long-term trade agreement develop on December 31, fishing is proving to be one of the politically most insidious sticking points. Here’s why the problem negotiator gives such seizures.

Boats from continental Europe have been fishing off the British coast for centuries, and these communities say they will be on the brink of ruin if locked out of these waters.

In Britain, however, membership of the European Union meant sharing British waters with fleets from France or other countries – and sometimes seeing larger, more modern vessels catching a larger proportion of the fish. In a zone off the English coast, 84 percent of cod is allocated to France and only 9 percent to Great Britain, according to Barrie Deas, executive director of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations.

The UK fishing industry claims that its interests were sacrificed for more profitable sectors when the country joined the European Economic Community, a forerunner of the European Union, in 1973. After the UK leaves the block, they want their fish back.

Fishing has an impact on the public imagination in a way that more lucrative sectors – such as insurance – never will. It can become front page news, as it periodically was when tensions between Britain and Iceland escalated in the “Cod Wars” that simmered from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s. Boats were sometimes rammed at the time, and British warships were even used to protect trawlers.

The last few weeks have brought back memories of those days. A confrontation between British and French boats (in a newspaper dubbed the “Scallop Wars”) may have been a harbinger of what could happen next year if trade talks fail. France’s notoriously confident fishing crews also have the ability to block off Calais – the main port connecting the UK to continental Europe. That could seriously disrupt trade.

The policy to control this is also difficult. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made big promises to the fishing fleet ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Now he must deliver or risk charges of treason. But French President Emmanuel Macron faces an election in 2022, and giving in to the British isn’t the best way to win votes in France.

Quite a lot. The European Union believes that the current arrangements should continue with more or less existing quotas and that continental trawlers should allow automatic access to most of UK waters. Britain says this is anathema to an independent coastal state and that Europeans will have to accept that Britain has left its club

France, whose fishing fleet has been particularly hard hit, has taken the toughest line on the European Union side, while other nations are more willing to compromise in order to reach a broader trade deal.

Another point of contention is the decision on future quotas. Great Britain wants annual negotiations on how the European Union conducts Norway over fish. The European Union argues that such a system is impractical as there are more than 100 species to haggle (main negotiations with Norway are focused on half a dozen species of fish).

The fishing industry is one of the areas where the UK has the edge, at least on paper, in the Brexit trade negotiations. Without a deal, Britain would regain control of its waters and ban continental fleets from them.

But there is one disadvantage. Britain exports much of what it catches and imports much of the fish it eats (mostly cod and haddock, the staples of the neighborhood fish and chip shops). Almost half of the animals caught by the British fleet are ‘pelagic’, which is fish that live and feed in open water rather than on the seabed. These are species like mackerel or herrings that few Britons touch and that fetch better price abroad (as do shellfish).

Although the UK is a net importer of fish, around four fifths of what is landed by UK ships is mainly exported to other European countries. Without an agreement, UK fish exporters could face tariffs and find their products wait – and possibly rot – in continental ports while inspectors conduct lengthy checks.

Regardless of the rhetoric from Paris, the European Union knows that continental fishing fleets could be locked out of British waters without an agreement, giving the European Union an incentive to settle down. Germany, the bloc’s largest economy, is supposed to encourage the French to compromise. The UK fishing industry (including farmed salmon producers) desperately wants access to continental European markets.

The UK government has suggested a possible solution: a transition – or “glide path” – under which UK fishing quotas would be gradually increased at the expense of continental nations. This would give time for the European fleet to adapt and for the British to expand their fishing fleets and revitalize the coastal communities to take advantage of new opportunities.

Both sides have an interest in making a deal, but finding one means navigating troubled political waters.

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