Brexit’s “fishing knot”

Monday 17 December 2018

In the context of the possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the uncertainty that accompanies it, the fishing chapter of the negotiations is highlighting the complexity and the ensuing stakes at play.

During the referendum campaign, the British fishing industry had become a symbol of Brexit's supporters and of those who wanted the United Kingdom (UK) to regain greater autonomy by withdrawing from ‘limitations’ imposed by the European Union.

The most critical issue for the UK fishing industry is linked to the fishing quotas allocated each year to each Member State by the EU Fisheries Ministers under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The principal aim of quotas is to ensure the sustainable management of this important common resource and the long-term fishing yields for all fish stocks by 2020.       

However, the rhetoric of Brexit presented a distorted picture of reality,  and the quotas system was depicted as detrimental for the UK interests.  

Hence, the promises made by fervent Brexit supporters and prominent politicians were that, with Brexit, the UK would regain sole authority over fisheries management and that there would no longer be any quota system to comply with. The Scottish Fishermen's Federation was one of the voices that most enthusiastically supported the “Leave” campaign[1] and - generally – a large segment of the British fishing industry voted for the UK’s exit from the European Union[2].

In her letter to the Nation, on 24 November 2018, UK Prime Minister Theresa May restated this vision:

“We will be out of EU programmes that do not work in our interests: (...) out of the Common Fisheries Policy that has failed our coastal communities. Instead (...) we will be an independent coastal state once again, with full control over our waters.”[3]

However, as the negotiations continue, prospects for the UK fishing industry are becoming more complicated than expected. Indeed, as seafood caught by the UK fleet is predominantly exported - about 80%, with about two-thirds of that sold to EU countries[4] - the British fishing industry cannot help but depend on the European market to sell the fish they will catch.

Moreover, the CFP has increasingly been receiving support from the majority of fisheries industry’s representatives in Europe, who emphasises the importance to preserve the transboundary and interdependent nature of fishing activities and calls for a post-Brexit agreement that ‘will take into account the economic and social realities of fishing fleets and coastal communities across Europe’ and that is ‘rooted in reciprocity and sustainable management of fish resources’ [5].

Indeed, the proposed ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ and ‘Political Declaration’[6] on the future relationship between the UK and the EU - backed by EU leaders in the European Council meeting on 25 November 2018[7]  and to be voted on before 21 January 2019 by the British Parliament[8] - provide that the UK should exit from the CFP to conclude, ideally by 1 July 2020, a new fisheries agreement with the EU over access to waters and quota shares on over 100 fish stocks[9], to be implemented as of 2021.

The outcome called for by the European Commission Director-General João Aguiar Machado during a meeting of the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee[10] - is that the UK would guarantee European fleet access to the British territorial waters and catch quotas in exchange for favourable conditions to sell its fish in the European market.

At present, no clear scenario is envisaged, thus leaving the destiny of the future EU-UK relations - including the establishment of a fisheries agreement -  in an abysmal uncertainty.












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