WHY could fishing, of little value to the economies of both the UK and France, crash a possible EU trade deal? As negotiations near a conclusion, this was the question Andrew Marr asked the French Europe Minister Clement Beaune on his Sunday show.
The reply was unusual. M Beaune said fisheries are important to both of us, but let us respect both interests. Let us find a solution. Look at the big picture: if there is no deal there is no access to EU market for the UK. Leaving the EU is about sovereignty, but for a trade agreement and beyond you have to combine two sovereignties, you have to respect both If you want access to a common market you have to respect the rules of this market both ways.
Firstly, on leaving the EU the French Minister confirms it is about sovereignty. If we go back to the debate in the House of Commons of February 17, 1972, Labour leader Harold Wilson quoted from his speech of August 3, 1961 (in the build-up to the first attempt to join the EEC which de Gaulle vetoed) clearly defining the area of division.
‘The question is not whether sovereignty remains absolute or not, but in what way one is prepared to sacrifice sovereignty, to whom and for what purpose . . . whether any proposed surrender of sovereignty will advance our progress to the kind of world we all want to see.’
So being a member or not of the EEC, now the EU, is about sovereignty. Do you want to be a nation sovereign over a section of territory that under international law belongs to your nation, or not?
Secondly, the French minister makes it very clear that if the French don’t get access to our waters, there will be no UK access to the EU market. That is playing poker for very high stakes.
Who is the minister representing, France or the EU? Many areas are covered here. France has handed the competency over to the EU, and yet M Beaune talks in the French mode and that is not acceptable. The UK is now regarded by the EU as having third country status. The EU want a fishery agreement with the UK, but on terms more draconian than anyone else.
The EU has two types of fishing agreements with non-EU countries, paying substantial annual fees, for a temporary stated period; no permanency is given. These are:
Sustainable fisheries partnership agreements (SFPAs) – the EU gives financial and technical support in exchange for fishing rights, generally with southern partner countries.
Northern agreements – joint management of shared stocks with Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
Sustainable fisheries agreements with non-EU countries allow EU vessels to fish for surplus stocks in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). That is legally possible under international law but that is not good enough for France – it is demanding a lot, lot more than that.
One would think France was punishing the UK. It must be exasperating during negotiations, hearing France’s constant overbearing demands, which will push the UK to the same situation as we did to Iceland at the end of the last cod war. Iceland made a generous offer, the UK said not enough, so we ended up with nothing.
The problem today is that France is raising the stakes so high that one would think they are trying to get the EU to sever all ties with the UK.