Hook, line and sinker: Brexit and the UK fishing industry

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James Faulkner

The UK fishing industry has long been a poster-child of the Brexiteer cause, with Nigel Farage citing the treatment of the fishing industry as the “acid test” of the Brexit process. UK fishing communities voted overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit, and few even on the Remain side would rush to the defence of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). So what is it about the CFP that makes it so unpopular, and what will change after Brexit?

As a member of the EU the UK is signed up the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), an agreement whereby EU member states continue to police their coastal waters but share them with other member states when it comes to fishing rights. Under this system, the European Commission classifies fish as a common resource and sets the rules in terms of quotas, discards, subsidies etc.

It is no exaggeration to say that the UK has done relatively poorly out of is membership of the CFP. Although it is true that UK fishermen can fish in the waters of other EU states, the fact that the UK has some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe means that this relationship is tilted in favour of other EU states. In 2015, for example, EU vessels caught 683,000 tonnes (around £484 million worth of fish) in UK waters, whereas UK vessels caught just 111,000 tonnes of fish (worth around £114 million) in EU waters.

Some argue that the fishing industry is a tiny proportion of the UK economy and receives a disproportionate amount of media attention due to its totemic status for Brexiteers. In 2016 the fishing industry contributed £1.4 billion to the UK economy, accounting for just 0.12% of total economic output. Although this does indeed represent a negligible share of economic activity, it belies the significance it has for some coastal communities, both in terms of the knock-on economic effects and indeed of local pride.

While fishing plays a relatively minor role in the UK economy, it has much greater significance for the economy of Scotland, which is home to the majority of the UK’s fishing fleet. It is somewhat ironic that some of the strongest criticism of the CFP has emanated from Scotland, despite the fact that Scotland as a whole voted to remain in the EU. Indeed, Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson made taking back control of UK fishing one of her red line issues in Brexit negotiations.

Given the slim Tory majority in the House of Commons, it appears that the small band of Scottish Tory MPs may be able to punch above their weight on this issue, as it was anger amongst Scottish coastal communities regarding the SNP attitude to the CFP that helped them to oust their Remain-supporting SNP opponents. However, this has set them on a collision path with Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Brexit deal includes a two-year transitional arrangement whereby the UK will remain party to the CFP until at least the end of the transition phase in December 2020 – an arrangement that one Scottish Conservative MP likened to swallowing “a cold pint of sick”.

There is now considerable fear amongst UK fishing communities that UK fishing rights will be bartered away with the EU in return for securing a favourable trade deal or resolving the Irish border problem. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron has already threatened to block an EU-UK trade deal unless French fishermen are granted full access to UK waters.

Although Theresa May has promised not to sell out the UK fishing industry, it seems likely that the UK could be pushed towards a compromise in order to secure a wider deal. Given that many EU member states’ fishing industries rely on access to UK waters, this is one area of the Brexit negotiations where Britain actually does have a strong hand to play. For example, Belgium relies on British waters for half of its entire catch, and Denmark and the Netherlands are also desperate to secure continued access to UK fisheries after Brexit.

Whether or not Britain once again becomes an “independent coastal state” after Brexit remains to be seen. But the fishing debate serves as a salutary reminder of the sense of marginalisation and injustice that drove so many to vote for Brexit in 2016. Given that fishing communities voted so enthusiastically for Brexit in 2016, it would be a tragic irony if their futures were bartered away to secure a deal.

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