Status quo in transition period and little change afterwards.

The gloves came off in the Brexit fisheries negotiations as the Commission set out its stall to the 27 EU member states last week, reports Tim Oliver.

The Commission is taking the hardest possible line in its position statement. It is calling for no change at all to the current arrangements during the transition period and in the longer term for ‘continued reciprocal access to waters, resources and markets.’

This would mean access to waters and quota shares would be inextricably linked to access to the EU market for fish and seafood – in total opposition to the UK industry position.

The NFFO and SFF strongly attacked the Commission’s stance, and the NFFO warned the government against ‘betrayal’ of the industry (see separate story).

In a presentation by a Commission working group on Brexit, made on 16 January, the Commission says:

“In accordance with the European Council (Article 50) guidelines of 15 December, the transition period will cover the whole of the EU acquis (all EU law), including guaranteed access to waters and resources, as well as the stability of quota shares” – in effect, a ‘status quo’ transition when nothing changes.

At the same time, the UK will no longer participate in EU decision-making.

The Commission accepts that EU-UK relations will be governed by international law and that we will have full control over our territorial waters. There will be a duty to cooperate on shared stock management.

EU trade will be conducted under basic World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, says the Commission, signalling the EU intends to make market access conditional on continuing EU access to UK waters.
Consultations will be needed between the UK and EU and internationally with Norway and the coastal states in the annual decision-making process on fishing opportunities for 2020.

Referring to future challenges, the Commission says the EU/UK fisheries relationship is ‘very intensive’ and that they will remain each other’s most important partner in fisheries matters.

Challenges in setting out a future EU-UK fisheries agreement will include joint management of around 100 shared stocks, reciprocal access to waters and resources and the single market for fish and seafood.

The Commission points out that EU landings from UK waters are worth €585m, while UK landings from EU waters are worth €127m (based on a 2011-2015 average).

In terms of the single market for fish and seafood, UK imports from the EU in 2015 were €1.31bn (34% of UK seafood imports, but only 6.7% of EU exports). UK exports to the EU in 2015 were €1.34bn (68% of UK seafood exports).

The objectives of the future bilateral EU-UK partnership agreement on fisheries would be:

■ to ensure continued reciprocal access to waters, resources and markets
■ define how fishing opportunities will be determined, having regard to historic fishing patterns and past records of activity
■ define cooperation on joint management of trans-boundary stocks
■ seek the highest level of convergence in management regimes

The agreement would be based on UNCLOS provisions, and aim for maximum coherence and convergence.
Fisheries management would be based on shared principles such as MSY, best available scientific advice, adherence to a landing obligation, ecosystem approach and alignment with other policies (eg environment).

Possible ‘building blocks’ of a future EU-UK fisheries agreement would include provisions on mutual access to waters, resources and markets.

Included under ‘policy provisions’ are joint multi-annual plans, discarding, stakeholder consultation and involvement, fleet management, joint control, data collection and scientific cooperation.
There would be reciprocal market access as part of an EU-UK free trade agreement.

Asked to comment on the UK position spelled out by fisheries minister Michael Gove, that there should be special arrangements for fisheries during the transition period and complete separation of access and market negotiations, a DEFRA spokesperson said: “We remain committed to leaving the Common Fisheries Policy and developing arrangements for fishing that can create a more profitable and self-sufficient seafood sector.

“As we leave the EU, we are working to secure the best deal for the whole of the UK fishing industry.”

‘Don’t betray us’ NFFO warns government

The NFFO slammed the Commission’s position statement, saying it ‘brings the EU into direct conflict with the aspirations of the UK fishing industry’ – and warned the government it must not betray the fishing industry.

“The Commission signals that it will insist on the status quo for quota shares and access arrangements, at least during any transition or implementation period; and will also press for the UK to be tied umbilically to the CFP for the foreseeable future,” said the federation.

“It intends to use trade as the lever to secure its objectives.”

The federation said the Commission’s stance would make the UK ‘a rule-taker, rather than a participant in the rule-making process’, which would certainly not reflect the proportion of fisheries resources in UK waters.

It said equal access and relative stability had worked very well for the EU fleets – and to the systematic disadvantage of the UK for over 40 years. “It is no surprise that the EU will try to cling on to this state of affairs for as long as possible. This new document provides an indication of how they will try to achieve this.”

The federation said the Commission’s plan is to block any shift towards the UK enjoying all the normal advantages of an independent coastal state, by insisting that access to the EU market, on anything other than WTO rules, would not be available, unless the UK sacrifices its fishing industry, which would continue to be subject to the whole body of EU rules past, present and future.

Denouncing the Commission’s aims as tying the UK into ‘an essentially exploitative relationship’, the NFFO said the UK would have to be ‘bent on self-harm’ to accept such a deal.

It said the Commission’s statement was ‘an opening negotiating position’ that it expected UK ministers to ‘stoutly resist’ – and warned the government would be punished at the next election if it did not resist the EU.

“Anything that looks like tying the UK into the present arrangements in the form of a CFP-lite, would be denounced by the fishing industry and its allies as an unacceptable betrayal – because it would be an unacceptable betrayal,” said NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the SFF, said the Commission’s position was ‘quite simply untenable’ for all the reasons the SFF has been setting out since the Brexit referendum.

It was ‘grossly unfair’ that almost two-thirds of fish within the UK EEZ were landed by boats from other EU countries.

He said: “The legal position is very clear – under international law, we will take back control of our EEZ when we extricate ourselves from the tangled mess of the CFP. We will become a coastal state and move from a position of coercion to co-operation, negotiating access with other countries within the various annual international rounds of talks.”

He stressed there was ‘absolutely no precedent’ for linking fishing opportunity to access to markets, and it made no practical sense.

It was also encouraging to see the growing consensus around the SFF’s other key demand – a nine-month ‘bridge’ from the end of March 2019, allowing for ‘a swift and logical transition’.

“Public support for our position is strong, and we will continue to press this with politicians across the UK at the highest levels, as we have been doing.”

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