ON The Conservative Woman, John Ashworth writes an important take on how the renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration cover fisheries.
John is a hero of the Eurosceptic cause, and a critical figure in the campaign to win back British waters. Indeed, I well remember my first meeting in Parliament working for Sir Richard Body, because it was when Save Britain’s Fish campaigners came to discuss whether or not he should take back the whip. So it is with considerable reluctance that I write this.
On this occasion, I think he may be wrong.
One of the issues he flags up is that the terms accelerate the negotiations. This is true, but when I spotted that I came to the conclusion that this was actually a win. One of the immutable problems for fisheries campaigners has always been that their industry has been seen as a bartering chip by civil servants and pro-EU politicians, prepared to sell it off in exchange for a concession somewhere else.
But by in effect firewalling these negotiations from the main ones, I think that risk is vastly reduced.
The time frame is itself important. An accelerated set of talks considerably reduces the risk of UK fishermen still being trapped in CFP provisions at the time of the next quota round. That really would be a disaster, as there would be no UK representative allowed in the meeting, let alone someone able to vote (and certainly, as we all know, no one who could veto). The UK’s sole safeguard would lie in the obligation that the EU would keep relative quota. As has been quite correctly noted, that is only a proportional guarantee, and does nothing to keep a lid on Total Allowable Catch – in other words, the EU could boost each country’s quota and allow for a catch free-for-all.
I also think decoupling these talks from the main talks actually increases the chance of a good deal – meaning one that is much closer to the default of eviscerating what’s happened since ’73. Focus will be on the UK’s return to its default rights as an independent littoral state.
The crunch issue will be over who ‘deserves’ continued access on the EU side. The UK position here is the key variable. Given that the default is ungenerous in international law, the UK should run their policy on that, albeit recognising that there are historical challenges and claims that certain specific parties can make.
I’d argue that specific exemptions and special treatments have to be down to established ancestral access, in smaller boats. More recent access, especially anything gained from abusing the licensing system (viz. Factortame), and in particular anything following on from the surge arising from Iberian accession in 1986, must remain off the table.
While we are at it, we should ban factory ships and anything linked with cetacean by-catch.
There will be EU losers. In which case, let the European Commission compensate. Given Commission statements over the past three years that have demonstrated a wider lack of sympathy towards the UK side, I am past contrition about there being losers from a bent system that has long been abused.
Pro-Remain campaigners, floundering around for a countervailing argument, claimed that the EU could play hardball and add phytosanitary obstacles and tariff rates, limiting exports from the UK. There is a problem with that argument: the shortage of suppliers. Indeed, that’s the very reason why EU fisheries ministers have been desperate to keep their trawlers bobbing around UK waters with access to our resources. In the medium and long term, taking back control of UK waters is in fact likely to boost domestic food processing businesses, since catch will be more likely to landed at UK home ports for onward export.
This is why I am more optimistic than John Ashworth. But there’s a very big caveat.
The fisheries industry and coastal communities have been screwed over by political parties since accession – indeed, by the very accession negotiators themselves. They have every right to be distrustful. They are quite justified in challenging every treaty dot and comma.
Delivery of a good fisheries deal depends on one key feature above all: a tough set of negotiators who know how good the default is in international law. Telling us now who these negotiators will be would be a positive step in reassuring an industry and community who have long been politically neglected and abused.