Sunday 01 November 2020

We cannot sacrifice a post-Brexit trade deal simply for the sake of the UK fishing industry

With just over two months left until the transitional period ends and the UK’s separation from the EU becomes final, several issues are aggravating and further complicating this already complex divorce. The fishing row is one of those family tiffs. This fortnight, the UK and its European partners will make probably the most deliberate and mindful attempt to salvage and maintain a good relationship after the divorce.

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. Macron was unequivocal, saying “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 go as far as blocking 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.” Today, the fish factor has interrupted discussions on both sides of the Channel, and has become far too political. Common sense and mutual interests demand a compromise solution.

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

The fishing industry employs 12,000 people, while the energy sector supports 768,000 – three quarters of a million – jobs. Of course, sovereignty is a highly important issue, and we do want to regain control not only over borders, legislation, and immigration, but also over our resources, like fish. But is it worth sacrificing our energy sector and good-neighbourly relations over? 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 issue worth sacrificing everything else for. 

If the French president is so keen on British fish, then perhaps we should let him continue fishing in accordance with EU regulations – it won’t seriously harm us. However, the issue of energy is far graver. 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 is the undisputed champion and has set the highest environmental and pollution criteria – will be critically endangered.

It is this programme on which the future of coming generations depends for stability, security and health, far more than on agreeable fishing between generally agreeable European countries.

However, 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, not only will it be bad for fish and other natural resources but it will harm people.

To die on the hill of fisheries 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.

The fish themselves, after all, are neither citizens of our country, nor even aware of the existence of Brexit, but rather beings and resources whose migration strongly depends on their warming environment. It is precisely that environment that we would protect by ensuring our energy sector is healthy, strong and secure.


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