Don’t fall for the EU spin that ceding access to fishing grounds will be the price of a trade deal

Don’t fall for the EU spin that ceding access to fishing grounds will be the price of a trade deal

All through the Brexit process – at least so far – EU negotiators have proved remarkably successful in dictating the sequencing of talks, deciding what should be discussed and when. It helped that the UK either failed to appreciate the importance of this concession or simply gave in, of course.

A less formal but related concession is in the way the EU has been able to frame the terms of debate around the Brexit settlement in general. Now that we are about to embark on the nitty-gritty of ‘the deal’, probably meaning a whole range of deals, commentators have been keen to pick up on red lines and what might be given up in return for something else. Although simplistic, the temptation to distill a highly complex process in this way is understandable.
It can also be misleading, especially when we fall into the same old trap of accepting the EU’s preferred interpretation of the situation.

Fishing offers a great example of this process. Put simply (as it almost always is), this is how it goes: the EU wants access to what will become UK fishing grounds and the UK wants a trade deal with the EU. Give-and-take gets you to guarantees of access in return for trade and our fishing industry gets sold out once again. Tough, welcome to Realpolitik.

As with so much Brexit-related argument over the past three and a half years, the British media have taken the premises of this argument as read. The EU frames the debate, as usual.

Here in Shetland, and in fishing communities right around the country, we have a different starting point. Under international law, the UK will decide who can fish in its exclusive economic zone, and under what conditions, as soon as we leave the EU at the end of this month. Like any other coastal state, it may choose to grant access to fleets from other nations for specified periods; in our part of the world, there is a well-established cycle of annual talks between coastal states that covers access as well as quotas and so on.

In short, the UK’s right to decide who fishes for what in its waters, and how and when, is not a matter of negotiation with the EU. It will be up to the UK to concede access if it so wishes, but it need not do so. This power to withhold access amounts to considerable leverage in international quota talks, and is the only realistic means of correcting an intolerable anomaly in which British fishers are entitled to catch less than 40% of the fish in their own waters. Giving away that power would be the sell-out our industry fears.

Ah yes, we are told, but fishing is a pretty small industry – UK catches are worth around £1 billion a year – and trade matters a great deal more. Giving up one for the other would be a pretty logical thing to do, wouldn’t it?

Well it would, but the premises are all wrong. In 2018, the UK exported some £290 billion-worth of goods to the EU, and the EU exported over £350 billion-worth to the UK. To state the obvious, both sides would benefit from a trade deal, and you could argue from those aggregates at least that the EU needs it even more than the UK does.

So are we really saying that the UK should give up something of value (fishing grounds) in return for something that is in the interests of both sides (a trade deal)? What sort of bargaining is that? The fact that our media routinely refer to this outcome as a serious possibility shows how uncritical it still is of EU spin.

To be fair, there are commentators who look at the whole fishing-for-trade argument with rather more sophistication, pointing out that free trade could well exclude fish products, and of course that would represent a serious challenge to our fishing industry. So it would, but UK negotiators – we assume they have rather more spine than their predecessors – could play that game too. The UK imports around 800,000 new German cars a year, for example, and we can play the same argument over and over from French wines to Spanish fruit. Realpolitik cuts both ways.

As the UK fishing industry starts to gear up for renewal and a potentially dynamic future, with all that implies for island and coastal communities, it is disheartening to hear the chattering classes so keen to assume that we are some feeble, struggling nation that should gratefully take anything the EU has to offer in the way of a trade deal, and at the EU’s own price. We do not understand where this mindset comes from and would rather hear a more balanced and critical analysis of where sensible concessions between two serious players might lie. Fishing-for-trade does not belong in that category, much as I-told-you-so Remainers might wish it to be.