Friday, 10 January 2020

The British fish for British boats delusion is about to be shattered


Fishing was always going to be a big row in Brexit because it's one of the most emotive issues - touching on matters of territory, identity, heritage and sovereignty - but especially because it was one of the most visible symbols of what was done to the UK without consent. Effectively, the EU in conjunction with the British government did to the fisherman what Mrs T is said to have done to the miners. Anyone alive at the time will have vivid memories of family boats at the wreckers. It left a deep economic and emotional scar on coastal towns.

Consequently it attracts a lot more political runtime than it should, and the fishing lobby are expert at playing the victim. Possibly they're the most politically overindulged constituency there is because they're totemic for eurosceptics. But like Mr Corbyn and his silly notions about reopening mines, there is no going back.

What has been built over the last 25 years is a single market in fishing of amazing complexity which is not so easily undone. The CFP hooks in with a number of trade and environmental objectives derived international law. Moreover this hooks in with a major global industry where 38% of workers in the North Sea fleet are from outside the European Economic Area. It's a dangerous job that increasingly doesn't attract British youth. Moreover, fish processing for export is worth more to us than fishing itself.

Furthermore the industry has changed in the last three decades with a handful of large boats doing the equivalent of a fleet's worth of fishing. This idea, then, that Brexit means that once again British harbours will be bristling with masts and alive with bearded Scotsman singing sea shanties is something of a romantic delusion. 

Nobody wins from the British fish for British fishermen mentality. If we want a market for all that processed fish then naturally we would wish to avoid tariffs and non-tariff barriers so whatever regime that follows will require a high degree of conformity. There will be no miraculous deregulation, not least because of international rules. If we want to land and sell fish in the EU then there will need to be a bilateral high-alignment agreement on fishing - and that will in all likelihood mean access to UK waters for EU boats.

Where it gets intensely political is over quota allocations where the UK will nominally be back in control but for a number of years will have to respect that quotas are bought and sold under a particular framework and foreign boats will have legacy rights. 

We should not, therefore, get carried away with the idea that there will be a great renaissance for British fish. Even if we took a nationalistic protectionist path with a view to consuming more domestically, we'd likely be no better off for it. It should be noted that fishing is worth less than a billion as an industry and is a fraction of our GDP. Overemphasis on fishing is a huge distraction from the bigger issue of the single market which is worth £270bn per annum upon which our services sectors depend.

In many respects Brexit has come far too late to save fishing, along with much else. If we want to make the best of Brexit we need to look at the world as we now find it. Sacrificing our single market access for a nostalgic delusion, expecting a coastal regeneration that simply isn't going to happen, is foolish. 

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