Boris Johnson delivered Brexit as promised on January 31, clearing the path for the UK to finally leave the European Union. He will now turn his attentions to trade talks with Brussels, which will begin next month and wants a full post-Brexit deal in place by the end of the transition period in December 2020. But fishing has already emerged as arguably the biggest stumbling block in upcoming negotiations.
The Prime Minister is pushing for a Canada-style deal before the end of the transition period in December – an agreement which took Canada and Brussels to agree on between 2009 and 2017.
Mr Johnson has insisted British fishing grounds are “first and foremost” for UK boats, but the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said allowing European trawlers into British waters was “inextricably linked” to striking a trade agreement.
Professor Alex de Ruyter, director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University, warned: “The EU will insist on access to UK fishing waters in addition to level-playing field provisions and precursors to any trade agreement.
“With over 70 percent of the UK catch being exported to EU states, the idea of excluding EU vessels doesn’t look like it will hold water.
Brexit news: Boris Johnson is fighting to secure favourable rights for UK fishermen
Brexit news: Fishing has emerged as one of the biggest stumbling blocks in upcoming trade deal talks
Expect UK fishermen to be the first thrown overboard if Johnson seriously wants to pursue a trade agreement with the EU
“The most likely result of failure would be tariffs on UK fishing exports which (unless the UK public discover a vastly increased appetite for langoustines and smoked salmon) would bring the fishing industry to its knees.
“Expect UK fishermen to be the first thrown overboard if Johnson seriously wants to pursue a trade agreement with the EU.”
If the Prime Minister does sacrifice UK fishing in exchange for a more favourable trade deal with the EU, other member states would still have access to UK waters.
But Mr de Ruyter warned whilst British fishermen have continued to vent their fury at Brussels over their treatment, they should in fact be looking closer to home for more definitive answers.
Brexit news: The Prime Minister has insisted UK fishing grounds are ‘first and foremost’ for boats
He said: “The current quota system which is seen as the bugbear by fishermen casts the EU as the villain for all the wrong reasons.
“Whilst the quota is agreed at the EU level, it is the UK Government that decides how that quota is split amongst fishermen, and smaller operators are disadvantaged by UK Government tendering practices that favour large commercial (including foreign) vessels.”
Professor de Ruyter also warned similarities shared between the UK and several other major EU nations mean their respective Governments won’t “sell them down the estuary” or “throw them overboard”.
He said: “The issue of fishing in trade negotiations appears “totemic” for both sides, despite the trivial economic contribution the sector generates.
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Brexit news: Boris Johnson wants a Canada-style agreement with the EU
Brexit news: Michel Barnier warned allowing European trawlers into British waters was ‘inextricably linked’ to striking a trade deal
“The Dutch, French, Spanish and Danish for example have maritime traditions equally strong to the UK, and they have fishermen who will have fished in UK waters for decades.
“Their Governments will not “sell them down the estuary” or “throw them overboard”.”
The UK Government has introduced legislation which it says ensures Britain will become an independent coastal state, quitting Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy and ending automatic access for EU vessels to fish in British waters.
But with future access and quotas set to be negotiated with the EU, there are concerns the fishing industry could lose out if it is used as a bargaining chip.
Brexit news: European fisheries – Exclusive Economic Zones of the UK and neighbouring coastal states
Mr Johnson said: “There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policies, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything similar, any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules.
“The UK will maintain the highest standards in these areas, better in many respects than those of the EU, without the compulsion of a treaty.”
He added that if a Canada-style agreement was not possible, he would walk away without a full trade deal – like Australia’s relationship with the EU.
Mr Johnson said that while he was ready to consider a deal with Brussels on fisheries, “it must reflect the fact that the UK will be an independent coastal state from the end of this year, controlling our own waters”.
Brexit news: Michel Barnier is standing firm on the rights of EU fishermen in UK waters
He continued: “Under such an agreement there would be annual negotiations with the EU, using the latest scientific data, ensuring British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats.”
But Mr Barnier hit back: “It’s clear the agreement that we wish to have in the interests of UK fishermen and in the interests of European fishermen.
“I call that reciprocal access to our territorial waters and our markets.
“That agreement on fisheries will be inextricably linked to the trade agreement, as indeed will be… the agreement on the level playing field agreed with Boris Johnson.”