Brussels is looking at how to compensate European fishermen that lose out from Brexit by handing them part of Britain’s old fishing rights in EU waters, as it seeks to unblock one of the toughest remaining issues in the future relationship talks between the UK and the bloc.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, urged EU governments this week to moderate their demands for retaining existing fishing quotas in UK waters, warning them that they had to be realistic on what could be secured.
Mr Barnier on Friday held talks with David Frost, his UK counterpart, in London to discuss the state of play in negotiations ahead of an EU leaders meeting in Brussels next week.
Lord Frost suggested this week that fishing rights were now the main outstanding issue in the negotiations, amid signs that Britain is prepared to cede ground to the EU on the other big vexed issue in the talks: state aid.
He told a parliamentary committee that Britain was prepared to “go further than you normally do” in a trade agreement and accepted the UK could benefit from a robust dispute-resolution mechanism on state subsidies.
“I can see us being ready to use them just as much as the EU in future,” he said. “Other EU countries subsidise quite often more than we do and that could definitely have an impact on us.”
British officials admitted Lord Frost was “showing quite a lot of leg”. One official said: “We aren’t talking about state aid now, just fishing.” Hopes are rising in London that a trade deal is taking shape.
Diplomats said that Mr Barnier was trying to break the deadlock on fisheries and had emphasised that Brexit could be softened for France, Denmark, Belgium and other fishing nations by intelligently reallocating old British quotas in the EU’s post-Brexit exclusive fishing zone.
The matter will also be sensitive for Britain because of the risk that, depending on the EU’s priorities, some British coastal communities could be hit.
The plans would be a way of partially offsetting reduced opportunities to operate in British waters, showing that sacrifices are being made by the sectors on both sides of the English Channel.
The EU went into the future relationship negotiations seeking to “uphold” access to British waters as well as existing catching rights for more than 70 types of fish that straddle the EU-UK maritime border. Britain, on the other hand, wants to ditch the old model for dividing up quotas and make access to its waters conditional on successful annual negotiations.
Although the EU fishing sector employs fewer than 180,000 people and accounts for less than 1 per cent of the bloc’s economic output, capitals warn that their coastal communities risk being devastated by Brexit, with very real political ramifications — not least in support for the EU.
Mr Barnier’s push for realism at a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday was met by a retort from Belgium that fishermen in its city of Bruges can claim rights in British waters in perpetuity because of “a privilege” granted by King Charles II of England in 1666. Diplomats insisted the remark was made in jest, even if it showed the historical depth of fishing ties.
Under international law, countries’ sovereign fishing waters — known as exclusive economic zones — stretch as far as 200 nautical miles from the coast, or less if they bump up against another country’s EEZ. One consequence of Brexit is that the UK will reclaim its own EEZ, removing those waters from EU fisheries management.
Under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, waters are pooled, and fishing rights in different areas are allocated to national fleets using a longstanding formula.
Diplomats noted that fishing rights enjoyed up to now by the UK in the residual EU EEZ are worth about a fifth of those enjoyed by the EU27 in UK waters.
According to data from the UK’s Marine Management Organisation, between 2012 and 2016, the UK fleet landed an annual average of 94,000 tonnes of fish per year valued at £106m from the EU27 EEZ; the EU27 fleet, by comparison, landed an average of 739,000 tonnes per year, worth £521m, from UK waters over the same period.
A UK official said the gap between the two sides in the future relationship talks remained “significant” both in terms of fishing quotas and access. “We are not going to do a deal that sells out the UK fishing industry as in 1973,” the official said, in a reference to the negotiations that preceded the UK’s accession to the European Economic Community.
“The EU must realise the current arrangements are going to change one way or another. There needs to be more realism from the EU and urgently.”