It’s an odd reflection of the state of Euroscpticism (or perhaps my state of mind), but while commercial fishing was once at the centre of the battle, and of intense interest, it now seems an intensely tedious issue lost in the margins of the Brexit debate.
Labouring under the title “sustainable fisheries for future generations” (are past generations of concern?), it has been accompanied by a press release which has Mr Gove telling us that leaving the EU “creates a sea of opportunity for our fishing industry”.
“Outside the Common Fisheries Policy”, he asserts, “we can take back control of our waters and revitalise our coastal communities”, on top of which we “will be able to put in place our own systems, becoming a world leader in managing our resources while protecting the marine environment”.
Mr Gove’s efforts have been rewarded by a splatter of headlines, dutifully repeating the Secretary of State’s claims, but without any great evidence of enthusiasm. Thus does the Mail declare: “British fishermen will get a ‘fairer share’ of the UK’s historic fishing grounds after Brexit, says Michael Gove”, while the Guardian laboriously announces: “UK to ‘take charge’ of its fishing waters under post-Brexit plan”.
Reading the actual White Paper, one can see why there is no great upswell of applause for Mr Gove’s initiative. Everything is very much in the future, as the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) stays in place until the end of the transition period (to the end of 2020) and, even then the quotas – the core element of the hated CFP – remain in place.
What is significant about White Paper, though, is something that none of the media have picked up – and nor are they likely to. Mr Gove and his team have approached the post-Brexit fishing policy in exactly the same way that the government is currently managing the main Brexit negotiations – by acting as if the EU did not have a view on the issues.
One has to struggle to page 17 of the document to find any detail of the role allocated to the EU, whence one finds that the UK becomes a full Member State for negotiations in 2018 and, critically, in 2020 we will be negotiating fishing opportunities for 2021 as a third country and independent coastal state completely separately from the CFP.
As an independent coastal state, the White Paper says, “we will decide who can access our waters after 2020, and on what terms, for the first time in over 40 years”. It continues: “Any decisions about giving vessels from the EU, and any other coastal states, access to our waters will then be a matter for negotiation”.
These, to say the very least, are tendentious assertions. At the heart of any post-Brexit relationship there will be the highly sensitive and extremely important issue of acquired rights.
Whether relying on a political or legal foundation, the EU will most certainly be expecting the UK to recognise the treaty-acquired rights of fishermen from the other Member States. And, on the basis of those rights, one might expect for the EU to demand something close to the status quo, where existing fishing rights are largely preserved.
Whatever one’s view of this, and one’s expectations of the outcome, it is undeniable that this is an issue – and an important one at that. Yet, without even acknowledging this “elephant in the room”, the White Paper airily declares that, “We will be seeking to move away from relative stability towards a fairer and more scientific method for future TAC (Total Allowable Catch) shares as a condition of future access”.
“Initially”, the White Paper says, “we will seek to secure increased fishing opportunities through the process of ‘annual exchanges’ as part of annual fisheries negotiations”. Then, “in due course”, it blithely announces, “as part of those annual negotiations we would be open to considering multi-annual agreements for appropriate stocks, as happens currently between the EU and other coastal states”.
Bluntly, one can see this going down in Brussels like a bowl of cold sick. And for the White Paper not even to allude to the prospect of highly contested negotiations – and vicious battles to come – is to indulge in a rarefied form of make-believe. It is most unlikely that, after 2020, the UK will be master of its own house and be able to decide, unilaterally, which fishing vessels access UK waters, under what terms.
But the Nelsonian touch goes much further than this, as the White Paper ignores completely the European Commission’s own views of the post-Brexit status of the fishing industry. These are set out in a Notice to Stakeholders which I reviewed last April.
What I noted then was the fact that much of the fish caught in UK waters has no domestic market. It is landed directly in ports in EU Member State territories. But, in the Notice to Stakeholders, the Commission reminds us that Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 applies to UK vessels wishing to land fish in the Union.
In this context, I wrote, Article 20 applies, setting out requirements which must be satisfied before fish can be landed. And these requirements cannot be met without detailed agreements between the Commission and the UK. And this amounts to a requirement that, before we are able to sell our fish to the Continent, we will have to agree a fisheries management plan with the Commission. We will not be free agents.
This Article, though, not only applies to landings but also to exports. Certification of all catches in accordance with Article 20 is required. But they not only have to be validated by the United Kingdom competent authority but they must also conform with a certification scheme which must be agreed between the Commission and the UK government. That refers back to the management plan.
Putting these provisions together as set out in the Notice, I concluded that, should the UK choose to go it alone, it would get its direct control over UK waters. That, after all, was the objective of Brexit. But this control would come at a price.
Faced with a European Commission under pressure from its own Member States (and especially, but not exclusively, the Spanish), the UK will not be able to do deals with other EU Member States. Our vessels will not be able to land fish in EU Member State Ports and we will not be able to export fish to the EU.
Furthermore, if we do want to sell fish to the EU, we have limited scope to develop independent fisheries management plans. We must liaise closely with the European Commission and it must agree to whatever path we wish to follow.
All that, of course, is dependent on a settlement of the acquired rights issue, which could drag on for many years and end up with proceedings in the International Court in The Hague. There may well be matters which can only be settled in this fashion.
With all this to come, though, the UK government is offering a ten-week consultation period, whence it will then proceed to a Fisheries Bill which will set out the basis of UK policy, which will be further amplified by the devolved governments.
However, as an exercise in “taking back control” – which the prime minister claims to be doing in the press release attached to the White Paper – this is a cruel charade. Fishermen are, as yet, no better off than they were before the referendum, and nothing the White Paper sets out holds any realistic prospect of being implemented.
Everything, as was always going to be the case, will depend on the trade negotiations carried out after we leave the EU, with a racing certainty that the Commission will make an deal conditional on a favourable (to it) fishing settlement.
Even then, for the foreseeable future, the Commission will play a major role in the determination of UK fisheries management policies, doubtless blocking anything which it feels will give UK fishermen an undue advantage.
For the future, we also have the question of the ownership of the UK fleet. It cannot be said that we really have ownership and control of our own waters unless we are able (like Iceland and Norway) to control who owns the fishing vessels and associated rights to exploit the resource.
That is yet another issue not addressed in this empty shell of a White Paper which so clearly typifies this Tory government’s approach to Brexit. In more normal times, it is said, when you put your ear to a shell, you can hear the sea. Try that with this White Paper and all you will hear is the sound of empty rhetoric.