The Withdrawal Agreement states that the EU and the UK should ‘use their best endeavours to conclude and ratify their new fisheries agreement by 1 July 2020’. Clearly, their best endeavours have not been enough: talks broke up on 2 July with continuing disagreement over an EU-UK fisheries agreement.
The EU and the UK are sticking rigidly to their principles – on the one side, that the UK should be treated as an ‘independent coastal state’ like Norway and renegotiate its fisheries deal with the EU annually; on the other, that European fishers cannot be made to pay the price of Brexit and must keep their existing quota shares indefinitely. These principles are mutually incompatible. If both sides hold to them, the consequence will be no deal on fish – which, as the EU has said many times, would also mean no trade deal. But these principles are often not based on facts but a few misconceptions.
The UK’s negotiating mandate states that it wants its future relationship to be based – like Norway’s – on annual negotiations over quotas and access to waters. Norway and the EU do negotiate on how much fish they can catch annually. And it is true that if the negotiations ever failed, EU fishermen would have no legal right to fish in Norwegian waters. But, in practice, the negotiations never fail. Reciprocal access has been renewed every year since 1980.
This is in part because the EU and Norway do not actually negotiate quota shares from scratch each year. Year after year, Norway takes 17% of the combined cod quota, 7% of the plaice quota, 29% of the herring quota, and so on. What they negotiate on is the total number of fish available to both of them. That number is then split in line with ‘zonal attachment’ – in simple terms, where the fish live. The UK has said that it wants its agreement with the EU to be based on zonal attachment as well. It’s hard to see how that is compatible with annual negotiations – unless the UK believes that the fish relocate very frequently indeed.
On the other side, the EU has stated that it cannot consider annual negotiations – as it conducts with Norway – with the UK because they would be impractical and create uncertainty for European fishermen over whether their businesses could continue from one year to the next. This may be true as far as negotiations on splitting the quota go.
But the EU and the UK will always have to negotiate the total size of the shared quota (the Total Allowable Catch) because the scientific data on how much fish can be caught sustainably changes from year to year. For example, the EU and Norway’s shared cod quota had to be cut by half from 2019 to 2020 because the scientific advice suggested that cod stocks in the North Sea were well below sustainable levels. Uncertainty about how much fish will be available from one year to the next is an unavoidable fact of the industry.
Both sides have wildly overstated the importance of fishing. President Macron has claimed that fishing is ‘an essential economic interest for our country that must be defended’. It is not. Everyone knows that fishing accounts for a small share of the economies of both the EU and the UK as a whole. But what is less well known is that fishing is not particularly economically significant even in coastal areas: not a single French port town derived more than 5% of its employment from fishing in 2010.
If both sides can accept that they will not get all they want, there is clearly a deal to be struck. The UK government is not unreasonable to want the quota shares allocated to UK and EU fishers to be based on where the fish live. Assessing where this is, however, will be a complex scientific exercise that will take some time to carry out – time in which EU governments could downsize their fishing industries in a controlled and non-disruptive way. Once the assessment is complete, the UK should accept that the shares will not change unless the science does. Brexit will necessarily involve change for the EU and UK fishing industries, but that change should not be made more damaging than it needs to be.