Britain and the EU have been engaging in tight trade negotiations for the past eleven months, yet at the time of writing no new deal as to the future relationship between the two has been reached; the negotiations have been extended further as both sides try to avoid a no-deal scenario.
A key sticking point for both sides – particularly for Britain – is control over the rights to fish in British waters. Despite only contributing 0.1% to the UK economy, it has been at the heart of Brexit negotiations but a compromise has yet to be reached. To make matters worse, the Ministry of Defence has recently said they are ready to deploy four Royal Navy patrol boats to protect UK fishing waters, with British soldiers potentially boarding EU ships if necessary. This begs the question: why are fishing rights so important for the Brexit negotiations? Is it, therefore, worth jeopardising a potential UK-EU trading relationship?
To understand the political and symbolic importance of fishing rights to the UK, it is useful to examine the history behind it. During the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, fishing was seen as a lucrative trade and brought wealth to many towns and cities near the British coast. Towns like Grimsby during its halcyon days became the largest fishing port in the world by the 20th century. Many fishermen would go out to sea, return with their catch and be flush with cash the same day. These ‘three-day millionaires’ helped the fishing trade to develop in these towns and made other fishermen want to join this lucrative business.
As a result, this new livelihood became part of the heritage of these growing towns, bringing much-needed employment and development to these areas. Nowadays, many towns such as Grimsby are a shell of what they once were, with derelict Victorian-age buildings and shuttered-up businesses becoming a common sight to see. Many attribute this change in fortunes to the UK’s membership to the EU.
When the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, the then Prime Minister Edward Heath negotiated the UK’s membership. Many within the fishing industry believed that he would maintain the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is 200 nautical miles from the coastline. However, this was not the case and it paved the way for equal access to European waters for everyone, leaving many fishermen feeling resentful. It is worth noting that these fishermen shared fishing grounds with other northern European countries, as they did for centuries.
Yet the current discourse surrounding this issue seems to suggest that British sovereignty over its EEZ has completely eroded thanks to EU membership. British fishermen were now not only competing with northern Europeans but also with France, Spain, Holland etc. Despite a quota system being implemented in 1983, many British fishermen reached their annual quota limits quickly, forcing them to take up jobs elsewhere to supplement their income. The Common Fisheries Policy worsened this issue for British fishermen by declaring that EU member states do not control their own territorial waters or set their own quotas. Fish are instead classified as a common resource and rules governing quotas, catch levels, subsidies etc are set by the European Commission.
Resultantly, many of the catches made by European fishermen on British waters have benefited the EU significantly at the expense of British fishermen. 760,000 tonnes of fish were caught by EU countries in UK waters, whilst only 90,000 tonnes were caught by the UK in EU waters (2012-2016 average). Furthermore, in terms of EU quotas, other EU states and their fishing fleets have enjoyed several benefits at the expense of the British e.g., for Channel cod, the British quota is 9% compared to 84% for France. Even EU quotas given to those in the UK are subject to unfair practices. A report by Greenpeace has found that the bulk of the UK’s fishing rights are in the hands of small domestic elites and foreign multinationals, with around half of England’s quotas owned by Dutch, Icelandic or Spanish interests. The report goes further in saying that successive governments had mismanaged fishing rights by allowing quotas to be given to supertrawler-operating multinationals and rich family elites, at the expense of smaller, independent fishermen.
Clearly, there is a significant asymmetry here that shows that Britain no longer has control over a natural resource which it views as its own. Despite only contributing 0.1% to the economy and employing 12,000 people, the fishing industry carries huge symbolic importance. Many people in areas such as Grimsby voted for Brexit and were partly responsible for helping the Conservatives secure victories in ‘red wall’ constituencies in the previous general election. The fight for fishing rights has almost become something of a metaphor for the wider movement fuelling Brexit: the widely held desire for Britain to ‘take back control’ of what was theirs.
Politically speaking, having this fishing rights issue framed in a way that illustrates ‘taking back control’ is useful. Showing an uncompromising attitude in order to salvage Britain’s sovereignty over its waters is sure to help maintain support amongst the Brexiteers, but also helps to perpetuate the image of the government standing up for the interests of its citizens. However, this can cost them dearly if they continue to prioritise fishing rights over a solid Brexit deal. The current trajectory suggests that a no-deal Brexit is highly likely, which will undoubtedly hurt those who voted for Brexit the most. They are yearning for the economic certainties of the past which the fishing industry had brought, yet the lack of a tangible Brexit deal as well as the potential for ‘gunboat diplomacy’ will only exacerbate the issues they are currently facing, not solve them.
So, what is to be done? If the Brexit camp is serious about striking a trade deal with the EU then it should not jeopardise it for the protection of fishing rights. Having a no-deal situation will reduce Britain’s GDP by 8.1% over ten years, which is far more problematic than accepting compromises on fishing rights. The EU has offered certain concessions such as annual quota renegotiations and a phased transition to the British position of wanting control over 60% of its territorial waters. Yet none of these concessions has been accepted by the British, wanting to fully ‘take back control’ of its waters outright.
Perhaps it would be better for the British government instead to compensate fishermen who have suffered or continue developing the renewable energy sector in these areas, as shown by the massive increase in wind farms off the British coastline in places like Cleethorpes. But showing an unwillingness to compromise on fishing rights can potentially help the Conservatives hold on to constituencies that voted heavily to leave, especially the ‘red wall’ constituencies. But the economic fallout expected from a no-deal scenario would be disastrous for the country as a whole.
This again highlights how the significance of fishing rights in the Brexit debate is not commensurate with its contribution to the economy. Unless Boris Johnson is willing to concede for a deal, a constant obsession with fishing rights for the sake of political advantage is not going to help the country recover from the social, political and economic divisions that Brexit manifested. It is time for the government to finalise a deal as soon as possible before the looming deadline, even if it means a certain part of the electorate opposes this move.