Landslide vote kills Brexit withdrawal bill
No-deal exit or delay more likely
The future of Brexit, and the future of the UK as an independent sovereign coastal state, looked highly uncertain after MPs crushed the EU withdrawal bill by a landslide 230 votes last week, reports Tim Oliver
Prime minister Theresa May was offering cross-party talks to MPs, to try to thrash out a consensus on what deal might get through parliament, as Fishing News went to press. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to take part, and SNP leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon also said that the SNP would not take part in any more ‘time-wasting’.
Jeremy Corbyn tabled a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the government immediately after the vote to try to force a general election, but it was defeated.
Theresa May was expected to present her alternative plan to MPs for debate on Monday this week. But even if a consensus on an alternative plan is agreed, MPs will not vote on it for another week.
The failure of the deal, and the apparent lack of any consensus among MPs as to what deal might be possible, have increased the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU, or even a second referendum if MPs cannot agree a deal.
With our official departure date set for 29 March, pressure has increased on the prime minister to delay Article 50, which enables Brexit, to give more time to devise a new deal, and discuss and finalise it with the EU.
The EU has said it will consider delaying the departure date, but only for a short period, and only if there is something substantially different from the rejected deal on the table.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said that a no-deal Brexit was looking increasingly likely, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, hinted at a need to reverse Brexit with a second referendum.
About 100 Labour MPs are believed to back a second referendum, as well as a significant number of Conservatives. Leading Conservative Remain campaigner Dominic Grieve said that there was no majority in parliament for any version of Brexit. “We must bring the people back into this discussion by legislating for a final say,” he said.
Commenting on the vote, the NFFO said that the legal position of the UK will change as soon as we leave the EU. “Whether the outcome is a no-deal exit, or Norway Plus, or any of the other variants of leaving the EU, the legal position with respect to fishing will have changed, and the UK will become an independent coastal state, with the rights and responsibilities of that altered legal status,” said chief executive Barrie Deas.
“Any voluntary dilution of those rights by a UK government would carry a heavy political price.”
NUTFA leader Jerry Percy said: “The continuing uncertainty is less than helpful to anyone trying to plan the future for their business. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the promises made about taking back control of our waters and becoming an independent coastal state, and a windfall of hundreds of thousands of tonnes more fish, are becoming thinner by the day.”
The SFF said it was waiting to see what the potential alternative might be before making any statement.
Scots minister slams Brexit – see below
‘Troubled waters ahead’ warn French
European fishermen are also watching developments in the UK closely, amid worries about their future.
A French fishermen’s leader said the vote indicated that EU fisheries were heading for ‘troubled waters’.
Gérard Romiti, president of French fishermen’s organisation CNPMEM, said that a no-deal scenario could have ‘catastrophic’ effects for French and European fisheries.
“Like the European coalition to which we belong, the European Fisheries Alliance, we can only take note of the fact that we have just taken a step further towards this scenario,” he said.
“If until now we have been sailing in fog, we are now sailing in troubled waters.”
He said that the withdrawal deal that UK MPs have so decisively voted down would have allowed for an orderly UK withdrawal from the EU, and a transitional period during which a fisheries and trade agreement could have been ironed out.
A CNPMEM spokesman added: “Given the international obligations relating to the management of shared stocks, and the recognition by both the UK and the EU of the importance of sustainable management of resources, it is inconceivable that there can be no agreement.”
He said there was no certainty that a deal could be agreed before 29 March, and that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit had come closer.
He commented that CNPMEM, as well as its European counterparts, will closely follow the British political situation as it develops.
Gérard Romiti said, “I call on the European Commission and our government to take all necessary actions and steps to anticipate the potential and multiple impacts on our fleets, our communities, and the sustainability of fisheries resources, that would result from an UK exit without an agreement on 29 March.”
France ramped up plans to deal with a no-deal Brexit, as French prime minister Édouard Philippe said that the vote made a no-deal departure look more likely. It activated contingency plans to spend £44m on ports and airports and a border agent recruitment drive.
Nathalie Loiseau, the French minister for European affairs, said: “It’s up to the British parliament and British government to have a back-up plan. It’s not up to us; we have given everything we can.”
EUFA: EU must prepare for no deal
The European Fisheries Alliance (EUFA) has said that the Brexit vote was a backward, though not unexpected, development.
It notes that there is still a majority in the UK parliament against a no-deal situation, and calls on all parties to avoid such a scenario.
“Despite the UK parliament’s clear rejection of the Brexit agreement proposed by PM Theresa May, we believe strongly in a negotiated deal between the UK and EU27 that fully reflects the fisheries elements in both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration,” said EUFA chairman Gerard van Balsfoort.
“We stand ready to do our part and to contribute to such a negotiated deal. The relationship with our UK colleagues has always been grounded in reciprocity, understanding and reasoned discussion, and we are confident that this will continue after Brexit.”
He said a no-deal situation would have serious effects on the seafood industry in both the UK and the EU. EUFA is asking the Commission and member states to prepare for all scenarios, including putting measures in place, in the event of a hard Brexit, aimed at protecting fleets, fishing communities, and the value chain.
EUFA hopes that, following the rejection of the Brexit deal, both sides will now turn their attention to developing, and agreeing on, a comprehensive bilateral fisheries and trade agreement, on the basis of the agreement reached between EU and UK negotiators in November 2018.
“A mutually beneficial trade and fisheries agreement, in the context of the overall economic partnership between the EU and the UK, remains our key outcome,” said Gerard van Balsfoort.
But he called on the Commission and member states to prepare mitigating measures to protect EU fishermen and their communities if there is a no-deal Brexit.
Scots minister slams ‘over-promising’ on fisheries Brexit
The EU withdrawal bill has set fishing to one side, and has left the door open for the EU to veto a fishing deal and impose tariffs on fish and seafood exports, reports Tim Oliver.
This was the view put by Scottish fisheries secretary Fergus Ewing in a scathing attack on Brexiteers who had ‘over-promised’ on the benefits Brexit would bring for the fishing industry, and failed to deliver.
Speaking at an inshore fisheries summit in Glasgow just before the crushing defeat of the bill, Fergus Ewing said that the SNP had always opposed the CFP as being ‘too prescriptive, not respecting regional management, and making rules from Brussels that don’t respect the science in every case, and are often the result of ‘back-door’ political deals’.
He said that Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for government business and constitutional relations and MSP for Argyll and Bute, who was present at the meeting, had put forward a proposal that would see Scotland exit the CFP but remain in the single market and customs union.
“During the referendum, the promise was made by those advocating Brexit that, in one step, we would be free of the CFP, and have total and unrestricted and exclusive access to all of the North Sea and all of our stocks (Scotland has 38% of all the stocks in the EU). If ever there was a case of over-promising and then failing to deliver, this is it,” said Fergus Ewing.
The deal that the prime minister had delivered did not give the security of access that was promised during the referendum. “What it says is that we will agree to have further discussion. Unless the EU states reach a deal acceptable to them about access to the UK stocks and waters, then both tariff and non-tariff barriers will be imposed on exports of all fish and shellfish, and farmed fish.” Delays caused by non-tariff barriers would be ‘catastrophic’.
The starting point for Brexiteers was, ‘Vote Leave and you’ll have all the fish,’ but the situation with the potential deal was that they had ‘parked’ fishing in such a way as to give the EU an effective veto.
“Instead of having the deal we were promised, we have an effective veto where if they say, ‘No, we’re not happy,’ then there will be no deal and the imposition of tariffs.”
He said it was also not clear how the process of quota swaps would work in this difficult situation.
He added that Scottish fishermen have more in common with their fellow fishermen in Europe than they have with the politicians of any party, and would not want to see them put out of business. So ‘it makes sense to reach a realistic deal’, he said. “In the next few months, if Brexit goes ahead, we will do everything we can to get the best deal possible, despite the ridiculous framework Theresa May has imposed on us.”
Fergus Ewing stressed the importance of fishing on the west coast of Scotland at the meeting, which was organised by the Clyde Fishermen’s Association to highlight issues facing inshore fishermen.
He also stressed the dangers of fishing, starkly highlighted by the loss of the Nancy Glen a year ago.
He pointed out that fishing is fully devolved, which he said was only right, as ‘colleagues down south – without disparaging them – won’t come to a meeting like this’.
He emphasised that the Scottish government and parliament would continue to champion fishing, and that he would continue to be ‘a stout defender of fishing in Scotland’.
Referring to Scotland’s inshore fisheries, he said that the west coast was under-reported by the media, where fishing had become synonymous with the pelagic and demersal fleets of the North East.
The government was determined to help all sectors of the industry in every area, including the seafood processors who were worried about export delays after Brexit.
He stressed that the industry has access to the government, and praised officials who went out and about to meet the industry and hear of problems first-hand. “We have the best officials in Britain, if not in Europe, representing Scotland,” he said, and added that they were a resource for the fishing industry as well as for him as minister.
Money was being allocated to inshore fishing, with £2.5m for inshore research projects, £1.5m for work at St Andrews University, and £1.5m for inshore vessel tracking and monitoring.
Another area where co-operation was needed was on the interface between fishing and the offshore renewables industry. Fergus Ewing said that he had asked his officials to ensure that developers have to engage with the industry. “After all, you have been there for centuries, and they’re the ‘new kids on the block’, and there has to be a proper process to ensure that issues around gear damage and loss, and compensation, are properly and fairly dealt with,” he said.
Recent measures to help and protect the commercial inshore sector included new conservation regulations on scallop, crab and lobster, guidance on static gear, Nephrops allocations, and catch restrictions on ‘cowboy’ hobby fishermen.
Turning to the December fisheries council, the minister said that the results were mixed but ‘reasonably encouraging’ for the west coast, though less so for the North Sea.
The key objective had been to avoid chokes as the landing obligation comes fully into force. There were solutions, but the EU was unwilling to use the flexibility tools available, such as quota transfers between areas and species.
But the council had secured solutions, despite the difficulties, on west coast whiting that he hoped would avoid a choke.
More details of Inshore Summit next week.
KFO seeks Brexit mitigation measures
Following the decisive defeat of the EU withdrawal bill in Westminster, the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) has called for a suite of mitigation measures for fisheries, in the event of a hard Brexit, to be spelled out clearly by the Irish government – something which has not previously been presented anywhere in any detail.
The producer organisation appealed to the Irish government to move might and main to ensure that the interests of the sector – which sustains 14,500 jobs and is worth €1.15bn to the Irish economy – are vigorously protected.
KFO chief executive Seán O’Donoghue said: “It is high time that we had sight of a tangible plan that would chart the future direction of the Irish industry in the event of a hard Brexit.
“The importance of this is underlined by the fact that Ireland’s two biggest fisheries, mackerel (60%) and prawns (40%), are massively dependent on access to UK waters, with the overall percentage of stocks currently fished from UK waters by the Irish fleet standing at more than 30%. We cannot countenance a situation whereby this access might stop at 11pm on 29 March, due to a hard Brexit. The events of this week notwithstanding, we believe a deal can still be reached in London.
“Whereas fish are mobile, and know no borders and bear no nationality, our trawlers don’t have this luxury, and must obey boundaries and exclusion zones. Our industry is standing on the edge of a precipice that is getting ever-closer with every passing day, and everything that we have strived for and developed for generations is staring into the abyss.
“While we were quite encouraged by the first tranche of documents delivered by the negotiating teams, and subsequently approved by the UK cabinet in December, the lack of tangible progress since then is most alarming. While the problem is very evident, and has been since June 2016, we in fisheries are now calling for real mitigation measures. The stakes are quite simply too high for this to be ignored any longer.”
Concluding, Mr O’Donoghue said that there is still a majority in the UK parliament against a no-deal situation, and it is imperative that such a scenario is avoided.
The European Fisheries Alliance, which was established less than two months after the British vote to protect the interests of fleets from national organisations in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden, and accounts for over 18,000 fishermen and 3,500 vessels, with an annual turnover of €20.7bn, has called on the European Commission and the member states to prepare all necessary steps to mitigate the impact of such a situation on its fleets, communities and fisheries resources.
It expressed hope that both sides are able and willing to turn their attention to developing, and agreeing on, a future comprehensive bilateral fisheries and trade agreement, on the basis of the agreement reached between EU and UK negotiators in November 2018.