Government and Institutions

Fisheries are not worth sacrificing a post-Brexit deal over

With less than a month left until the transitional period ends and the UK’s separation from the EU becomes final, several issues are still aggravating and further complicating this already complex divorce. The fishing row is one of those family tiffs.

While we were part of the EU, all member states were able to benefit from marine resources under EU regulations. The closer we get to 1 January 2021, the more politicised the issue of fisheries becomes. It is a symbol of sovereignty for Brexit supporters and a major sticking point in the final agreement negotiations for countries with big fishing fleets, such as France.

Macron was unequivocal at the press conference after the EU Summit on 16 October, saying that “under no circumstance will our fishermen be sacrificed to Brexit”, underlining that the issue of fisheries was of the highest priority for France, and that if it was not resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, he would be prepared to block the energy agreement between the EU and the UK.

Boris Johnson, being the experienced fisherman that he is, has also signalled that fish and Brexit are inseparable, saying the EU “want[s] the continued ability to control our legislative freedom, our fisheries, in a way that is completely unacceptable to an independent country”.

However, the rhetoric from both sides does not change the fact that, without an agreement, British waters could become off-limits for continental fishing fleets while Britain’s seafood industry would lose access to the EU’s fish markets.

Both the UK and its European partners, therefore, have an interest in striking a deal and are currently making probably the most deliberate and mindful attempt to salvage and maintain a good relationship after the divorce.

I would also like to offer an economic perspective on this curiously political issue. The fishing industry accounts for a mere 0.08% of our Gross Domestic Product and contributes £1.4 billion per annum to the UK economy, while the energy trade with Europe exceeds 6% of our GDP and amounts to £126 billion yearly.

The fishing industry employs 12,000 people, while the energy sector supports 768,000 jobs.

Yes, I know: for some coastal regions, fisheries are part of the local identity, and the industry’s cultural importance is vastly greater than its economic importance. We talk about “fishing villages” and “fishing towns”, never about “retail villages” or “accountancy towns”. However, nobody said that the fishing industry cannot thrive after Brexit. It very much can. The point is that the impetus here has to come primarily from domestic policy reforms (for which there are plenty of sound proposals, see e.g. here and here). What we do domestically, on this front, is more important than what precise arrangement we have with the EU.

Of course, sovereignty is a highly important issue, and we do want to regain control not only over borders and legislation, but also over our resources, like fish. But is it worth sacrificing our energy sector and good-neighbourly relations over the comparatively small UK fishing industry?

The answer to this question is obvious for the business community, as well as all people of common sense in Europe, hoping to live together in prosperity and harmony – but this unfortunately does not yet appear to be the case for politicians.

It is one thing for the fisheries issue to be used as a negotiation tactic to place pressure and achieve compromise on both sides, but it is quite a different thing altogether if politicians really consider fisheries the kind of sovereignty issue worth sacrificing everything else for.

If the French president is so keen on British fish, then perhaps we should give our EU partners continued access to UK fishing waters in accordance with EU regulations – it won’t seriously harm us.

While understandably concerned about his country’s fishing industry and trying to settle business issues by political means, Macron is no enemy to our sovereignty, and fisheries certainly should not be a stumbling block in the UK’s relationship with Europe.

However, the issue of energy is far graver and should be our priority focus. Today, France is Europe’s main energy hub and has no plans to abandon this privileged position.

If the energy union/agreement that we have is broken, not only will the supply of gas and electricity from the EU be put at risk, but also the vast environmental programme that has been developed over the last decade – the one in which Britain has set the highest environmental and pollution criteria.

This programme will have a greater long-term impact on stability, security and health, than any fishing agreement between European countries could have. If we cannot achieve our target (and required) decarbonisation in line with our Net Zero carbon pledge, in the necessary drive to create new energy generation to power our nation’s growth, it will not only be bad for fish and other species. It will also harm people.

Turning fisheries into a dealbreaker would be the epitome of being penny-wise and pound-foolish; we must not let nationalistic fervour or perceived slights cloud our vision. It is not worth risking the current ambitious, progressive energy programme we have, and the environmental programme related to it, for the sake of sovereignty over fish.

Some issues of national sovereignty really should be non-negotiable, and some hills really are worth dying on. But this is not one of them.


Previous versions of this article have been published in Euractiv and the Telegraph.

Alexander Temerko is director of Aquind Ltd, and a member of the IEA’s Advisory Council.

6 thoughts on “Fisheries are not worth sacrificing a post-Brexit deal over”

  1. Posted 03/12/2020 at 10:43 | Permalink

    Unfortunately, such informed good sense is not shared by the blinkered champions of ‘take back control’. How will they control our energy supply when they give priority to the slippery fish. Just how much of what will they take back control?

  2. Posted 03/12/2020 at 22:45 | Permalink

    Please do not tell me that the IEA has signed up to this “If we cannot achieve our target (and required) decarbonisation in line with our Net Zero carbon pledge”.
    It’s essentially saying that there is a climate emergency and that getting to net zero is a desirable target. These are mutually incompatible claims about reality, for if 420 ppm of CO2 constitutes an emergency then keeping that ratio the same will still be an emergency.
    I expect a pro-market pro-Pigouvian sort of organisation like the IEA to mock the Net Zero carbon pledge, not to be neutral or to possibly support it.
    Good points on the relative importance of fisheries to energy.

  3. Posted 04/12/2020 at 20:13 | Permalink

    This article is ridiculous. It’s saying that the EU should have a degree of control over our sovereign waters, which is not reciprocated, or they will cut off energy supplies (we don’t actually need energy supplies from the EU, it’s just that they have spare (and cheap) capacity available when they don’t need it and when we do).

    What are they going to do with this spare capacity if they don’t sell it to us? Cutting it off would mean us needing to use our own (more expensive) generating capacity (we switch off the most expensive of our energy generation capacity when we don’t need it or can buy cheaper energy from the EU). This would cost us money, of course. However, it would also cost France money as they wouldn’t have a market for their spare capacity when they don’t need it (and France has plenty of spare capacity at non-peak times because they generate so much power from nuclear, which cannot be shut down or increased quickly in line with their domestic demand, unlike, for example, gas-powered generation).

    So the argument is that we should (permanently) give us our own sovereign rights over fishing – which no other non-EU country does – because of an EU threat, when carrying out this threat would hurt them as much as it would us (arguably more).

    A more fundamental point is whether any sovereign country should give up its rights because of a threat. We should not.

    It’s reasonable for the EU/France to argue that we should agree a transition period (because investments in the fishing industry have a payback over many years and they need to plan) as good neighbours. Annual negotiations could, for example, only come into (say) 3 or 5 years hence, thus allowing plenty of notice of change. We could even agree a price for access to fishing waters in the future (on both sides, as we may want access to theirs), but to argue that we should give up rights because of a linkage/threat to some other otherwise unrelated area is simply outrageous.

  4. Posted 05/12/2020 at 09:52 | Permalink

    Those 768,000 jobs in the energy industry are a cost, not a benefit.
    The benefit from energy is what we do with it, not how many jobs it takes to supply it.

  5. Posted 05/12/2020 at 09:58 | Permalink

    ‘If the energy union/agreement that we have is broken … the supply of gas and electricity from the EU [will] be put at risk.’

    Will that supply be put at risk though? Presumably they sell the energy to us. Providing empoyment for French ppl. You seem to imply yourself its a significant industry to the French. They don’t just give us the energy as an act of charity. There would be severe consequences for France’s energy industry if they just cut us off (or whatever you are suggesting). Proverbial noses, faces and cutting things off surely?

    As for the green energy policies you allude to – i think those policies themselves will be the cause of increasing energy supply probems in the medium term.

  6. Posted 28/12/2020 at 18:01 | Permalink

    ” The fishing industry: a mere 0.08% of GDP; employs 12,000 people; are part of the local identity.”

    That’s it? That’s the full argument? Considering the long and ignominious history of British right-wing entitled, gross incompetence its sad to see the Dunning-Krueger effect so clearly on display here.
    I thought this was supposed to be a serious outfit.

    Original UK coastal biomass by species.
    Long-term viable contribution to national protein diet at full original level (1900) and currently.
    Demographic outlook for Africa over the next 30 years and likely immigration impact on the UK.
    Long-term UK/World demographics and implications for national food security.
    Contribution of marine sourced nutrients to national mental vigour and toxicological outlook.
    Current trends in marine species composition and their impact of fishing.
    Current trends in coastal species composition and consequent trends in dependent terrestrial species.
    Trends in marine nitrogen contribution to coastal soil health and fertilizer long-term security.
    Proposed post-Brexit management regime sovereignty/flexibility/costs and econo-political implications.
    Post-Brexit management regime implications for marine reserve designation and fish stock recovery.

    And so go on.
    As this self-appointed think tank takes it upon itself to influence the serious business of management of the UK I strenuously advise it to buck up or give up. Smug know-it-all doesn’t cut muster.

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