Friday 9 March 2018

All at sea on fishing

Fishing was always going to be a big row in Brexit because its 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 are the most politically overindulged constituency there is because they are totemic for eurosceptics.

But like Mr Corbyn and his silly notions about reopening mines, what has been built over the last 25 years is a single market in fish of amazing complexity, hooking in with a number of environmental objectives derived from EU and 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. Fish processing for export is worth more to us than fishing itself.

So this idea 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.

Then 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 have a great deal of legacy conformity. There will be no miraculous deregulation.

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.

Once again I remind you that fishing is worth less than a billion as an industry and is a fraction of our GDP and overemphasis on fishing is a huge distraction from the bigger issue of the single market which is worth £240bn per annum.

In this, EU member states have their own interests to protect. As much as our land trade has built up around free movement of goods, EU sea trade has built up inside the framework of the CFP. That is an ace in the hand but it doesn't buy much in the grand scheme of things.

We should note, though, that fishing is just as political for EU member states an cutting off fishing access is PR the EU does not want. It is therefore some leverage. The thing to watch for eurosceptics is not UK gov bartering quotas away. That was always going to happen. Trade is trade-offs. What matters is repatriation of control of British waters and the sole right to legislate over it.

On this we may wish to enter a bilateral accord with an independent body but if it falls within the EU stack of governance under ECJ then that to me is a big no. We do not, however have a free hand because we are bound by a number of global accords, not least on conservation.

I have seen accusations that the EU is seeking to cherrypick, but the reality is that the EU is the larger, more powerful side of this negotiation and it is we who are petitioners. We do need to get real about this.

In my view it would be a mistake to treat fishing as a bartering chip in respect of unrelated concerns. The reason we have a CFP is deliberately to keep it siloed from other concerns. We are opening a can of worms if we break that convention.

This is really why I think we should stay in the EEA, so that current trade is protected and we are not held over a barrel and then we have an entirely different framework for negotiating a gradual dismantling of the CFP.

We should not in any way underestimate the complexity of fishing regulation and unpicking the CFP is a feat of legal engineering requiring a whole new set of domestic institutions for which we are not yet equipped. It will take some time and will have to consult the industry.

The fatal mistake would be to enter discussions about fishing with the notion that Brexit is in any way restorative. What was done is done. There is no going back. Nor especially do we want to be lumber with the costs of whole system administration. It pays to share.

If anything, Brexit is a chance to modernise, and to an extent remove the blocking commercial interests so that we can have real reform. That, though, is not guaranteed. That said, whatever we come up with will struggle to be worse than the CFP.

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