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.