Britain’s legal bilateral arrangements with its neighbours on fishing rights date back to the middle ages. Yet many fishermen have broken with this international tradition and voted to leave the EU on the basis that Brexit will result in greater fishing rights for British vessels. However, while a vote can be cast in a moment, unpicking 40 years of highly technical regulation could tie British and EU civil servants in knots for far longer than anyone might imagine.
So long, and thanks for all the fish
For leavers, on paper it all looks fine: simply serve notice, exit the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and regain control of UK waters, which in some areas stretch out 200 nautical miles from the coast. As prominent leave campaigner and Fisheries Minister George Eustice says: “If we re-establish national control for 200 nautical miles or the median line as provided for in international law then we would also be in the strongest possible position.” This is because we would in theory be able to argue for a better share of quota allocations made in many fish stocks, based on control of this area. The problem is, this hypothetical approach ignores several hard realities.
The UK already has claim to a significant proportion of international quotas, which permits UK vessels to operate in the waters of other European countries and vice versa. These quotas are already the subject of annual horse trading between Member States, so to some extent they already represent a division between nations and would almost certainly be used as the basis for any redrawn arrangement. So while Brexit might increase UK control of own waters, this would be likely to be balanced by lost access to others.
Moreover, fish do not recognise national boundaries; many species migrate through various national waters and the high seas. In recognition of the conservation and access issues this raises, international law requires states to enter into international agreements to address them. When (and if) the new Prime Minister takes the bold step of commencing Article 50 negotiations, Mr Eustice has already acknowledged that all he is hoping for is a ‘fairer share’ of the stock: in other words, a renegotiation of the CFP, not a scrapping of it. Brexit from the CFP is impossible, because a new CFP – or at least a multinational agreement along similar lines – will be required.
The latest version of the CFP is widely regarded as a success: catches are rising and environmental safeguards seem to be working. So, it can only really be the ‘fairer share’ point that the Minister is concerned about. Exiting the EU and renegotiating the CFP through multilateral frameworks would cost many tens of millions of pounds and take many years; if further questions arise around Scottish independence, this would add yet more to the cost and delay. During any period of renegotiation, uncertainty would stalk the UK fleet and it would be a difficult time for fishing businesses – like all businesses – to raise investment.
A recent report by UWE Bristol put the total capital value of the UK fishery at £1.125 billion. The cost to fishing businesses (let alone to the broader fishing sector) of several years of uncertainty would weigh heavily against any increase in the size of the fishery. Furthermore, renegotiating quota is not as simple as The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations indicates in its response to the Brexit crisis:
“We can certainly seek to renegotiate quota shares as well as access arrangement but it is realistic to expect that there will be a price of some sort. Who will pay that price is a critical question.”
If we press for £200 million of extra quota for the UK fishing industry, the price is likely to be paid by another branch of UK industry. If ground has to be given in the diplomatic dance to come, is it more likely that UK negotiators will prioritise the interests of fishermen, or cast them adrift in order to secure concessions for sectors like banking and finance? It’ll be a tough job for Britain’s already overstretched diplomatic service, whose resources may be placed under more pressure if the economic chaos which the Brexit vote may wreak reduces our tax take.
Pretty kettle of fish
One further element of the CFP will remain to be decided: whether fishing interests in the UK will still receive the £243 million currently distributed by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. The Leave campaign’s numbers have been vague at best and in some cases (like the £350 million a week payment to the NHS battlebus claim), absurd. All sorts of promises have been made, but all centre around the concept that money once ring-fenced by Brussels will now be at the discretion of the British public. If Britain takes control of the funds, there is no guarantee that support for fishermen would continue at the same level beyond the current 2020 round of distribution when forced to compete with other potentially more pressing priorities (such as healthcare).
Whoever presses the Article 50 red button is going to have to manage the significant expectations of the fishing industry through the realisation that the years of expensive and protracted legal wrangling ahead are likely to bring us back to much the same place. Brexit is impossible for fisheries.
This blog is subsequent to an article in the Conversation by Bryce Stewart and Griffin Carpenter.