No progress in Brexit fisheries talks, says EU chief

Brussels insists on trade and fishing link

The UK and EU remain deadlocked over fisheries in the Brexit negotiations, which have continued to take place by video link despite the Covid-19 crisis, reports Tim Oliver.

The EU has again said that any trade deal must include a fisheries agreement. And, with time running out for a decision by 30 June on whether or not to extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020, the UK government says it will not ask for an extension.

IMAGE: EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier: “The EU will not agree to any future economic partnership that does not include a balanced, sustainable and long-term solution on fisheries.” 

Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost said it would not be in the UK’s interests to extend the transition period.

Spelling out the state of play in the negotiations at a press conference in Brussels last week, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there had been ‘no progress’ on fisheries.

“On this essential topic, the UK has not put forward a legal text,” he said.

“We have made no tangible progress, despite the political declaration stating that we should make our best endeavours to reach an agreement by July. This is necessary to provide sufficient clarity for EU and UK fishermen, and also for all businesses linked to fisheries.

“The EU will not agree to any future economic partnership that does not include a balanced, sustainable and long-term solution on fisheries. That should be crystal clear to the UK.”

He said that the two parties must be realistic about the two ‘very real’ legal deadlines of 30 June – when the two sides must decide whether or not to extend the transition period – and 31 December, the end of the transition period.

The UK government has said it would refuse any extension of the transition period, and ‘the clock is ticking’, said Michel Barnier.

A UK government spokesperson said: “On fisheries, the EU’s mandate appears to require us to accept a continuance of the current quotas agreed under the Common Fisheries Policy. We will only be able to make progress here on the basis of the reality that the UK will have the right to control access to its waters at the end of this year.

“We now need to move forward in a constructive fashion. The UK remains committed to a deal with a free trade agreement at its core.”

‘Unprecedented’ proposals

The government spokesperson said that the UK would keep talking, but that some of the EU’s proposals were ‘unprecedented’, and did not take account of the fact that the UK would be ‘an independent state’.

David Frost tweeted: “We are ready to work to agree a fisheries agreement which reflects our rights under international law to control our own waters, and provides for annual negotiations over access based on scientific principles. We won’t agree to continuing the Common Fisheries Policy.

“Extending would simply prolong negotiations, create even more uncertainty, leave us liable to pay more to the EU in future, and keep us bound by evolving EU laws at a time when we need to control our own affairs. In short, it is not in the UK’s interest to extend.”

A Brussels source close to the negotiations said that the EU ‘fully recognises’ that the UK is an independent coastal state with full control of its waters. They said that the EU ‘is not seeking to impose the CFP’ on the UK, and that ‘anything in the media that is spun otherwise would not be a fair picture of what has been presented’.

The source told Fishing News: “The EU mandate is clear on what the member states want from a continued partnership in terms of quota and access, but the UK is not ready to put figures on the table to reflect what a ‘fairer share’ means.”

They said that the UK fishing industry had already won two battles – sovereign waters and no CFP. What needed to be decided was what level of co-operation there should be between the EU and UK, and how much access and quota shares the UK will grant to EU vessels.

If there was no agreement, they said there would be ‘no EU fishing in UK waters, unilateral TAC setting, and no UK access to EU markets – or at least very difficult’.

A top-level conference is due to be held in June to assess progress in the negotiations. Michel Barnier warned that before then, there are only two rounds of negotiations remaining – in the weeks beginning 11 May and 1 June.

‘Vast gap’ between EU and UK

The NFFO said that the gap between the two sides was ‘vast’ and that it was ‘no surprise’ that no progress has been made.

It said there was ‘zero prospect’ of the UK agreeing to the EU’s negotiating mandate of retaining the status quo on access rights and quota shares, and holding the UK as closely as possible to the provisions of the CFP.

“The EU mandate has been deliberately designed to give the Commission no room for negotiation or compromise. As no agreement is possible without movement from the EU side, a stalemate is inevitable,” said NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas.

He said that the EU’s ‘nuclear’ negotiating option would be to block a free trade agreement unless the UK caves in on fisheries – but this would carry a high risk of a no-deal outcome.

This would hurt the UK, but also some EU member states that depend heavily on trade with the UK.

“But on fisheries, it would hand the UK what it wants – the freedom to act as an independent coastal state, with control over access and who fishes in the UK EEZ, and in annual fisheries negotiations,” said Barrie Deas.

He said that the EU has published a draft legal text that reflects something close to the status quo, which it would like to use as the basis for negotiations.

The UK has yet to submit a legal text, but has made clear that its objectives are:

  • UK sovereignty to act as an independent coastal state, with regulatory autonomy over the fisheries within its EEZ
  • Co-operation on the management of shared stocks
  • Annual fisheries agreements on managing shared stocks
  • Quota shares that more closely reflect a scientific assessment of the resources in UK waters
  • Access for EU vessels to fish in UK waters (and UK vessels to fish in EU waters) where this is mutually beneficial
  • An exclusive 12-mile zone to protect the UK’s inshore fisheries.

This is ‘pretty close’ to the EU’s current fisheries agreement with Norway, said Barrie Deas.

He said it was ‘unlikely’ that agreement could be reached in June, or even later in the year.

“At present, the EU negotiating mandate does not allow for any flexibility, and so it looks like a no-deal is the most likely outcome. On fisheries, the UK will then prepare to enter the cycle of autumn negotiations with Norway, the EU and the other countries with which it shares stocks, in the absence of a UK-EU framework fisheries agreement.

“This is not ideal, but it is better than the alternative – agreement to terms that would tie the UK back into a CFP-type arrangement. That would be politically unsellable in the UK.”


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