Flanders seeks help from Charles II to fend off Brexit fish threat

Flanders is serious about safeguarding its fishing rights in British waters — and it is prepared to turn to the Stuart monarchy for help.

The Belgian region’s economy minister, Hilde Crevits, told the FT that Flanders was carrying out legal due diligence to see if it can invoke a “Fisheries Privilege Charter” granted by King Charles II in 1666 — a fallback in case EU-UK negotiations on access rights to British waters fail. 

“A first legal analysis indicates that — should no agreement be found between the EU and the United Kingdom on access to the 12-mile [offshore] zone — this Privilege Charter still applies,” said Ms Crevits. 

Should this be borne out by a more in-depth legal assessment currently under way, “Belgium will not fail to invoke the privilege”, she added.

Ms Crevits’ comments reflect the determination of EU nations to fight their corner on a subject that has snarled future-relationship negotiations between British prime minister Boris Johnson and the EU. 

EU access to British waters will be a main problem to be solved during the final negotiating push between the EU and UK once (as is widely expected) talks restart. For the moment, Britain has put the negotiations on hold, demanding guarantees of a more accommodating EU approach.

It’s not hard to see why fishing is sensitive: Ms Crevits notes that 50 per cent of the revenue made by Flemish fishermen comes from fish caught in British waters — around €40m a year. The Flemish fleet is small (67 boats) but the sector as a whole provides jobs for 2,500 people.

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“Barring Flemish fishermen from British waters poses an existential threat to the entire industry,” she said. 

This is where King Charles II comes in. England’s “Merry Monarch” promised in 1666 that 50 fishing boats from Bruges would have a perpetual right to fish in British waters. 

The 12-nautical-mile zone that Ms Crevits refers to is Britain’s territorial sea. Coastal waters such as these are exempt from many aspects of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, including quota setting. But for a number of EU coastal states these fisheries are a source of longstanding and valuable rights. 

UK coastal waters are good fishing grounds for lucrative species such as scallops, crab and langoustine.

Prior to the creation of the CFP, these rights in coastal waters were preserved by the London Fisheries Convention of 1964, which the UK also decided to leave in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

Unless the EU-UK future relationship talks can address the issue, countries will have to rely on agreements dating back centuries as they head to the courts. 

The charter was mentioned by Belgium at a meeting of senior EU diplomats earlier this month — a meeting at which France also mentioned its medieval concessions in England’s territorial sea. 

The uncertainty in the EU-UK future-relationship talks is affecting the fishing sector in many other ways. On Monday, EU fisheries ministers gathered in Luxembourg to press ahead with work setting catching rights in EU waters for 2021. Those waters have shrunk greatly with the UK’s departure.

Monday’s talks were about the Baltic, a fishing region untouched by Brexit. But in December, EU governments will have to hammer out an agreement for 2021 to divvy up catching rights in the rest of the bloc’s waters. Preparatory work for that negotiation is well under way.

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How difficult that discussion will be depends on whether the EU has managed to preserve some rights in Britain’s exclusive economic zone, which stretches as far as 200 nautical miles from the UK coast.

The UK’s departure also has direct ramifications on Brussels’ annual negotiations with Norway — another source of prized rights, not least for Arctic cod. Those discussions, which are now beginning, will henceforth be trilateral, with the UK defending its own interests. And the EU will not be able to offer Norway fishing rights in UK waters to sweeten any deal.

At this stage, few European industries would be keener, or more relieved, to see a positive end to the EU-UK future-relationship talks than the bloc’s fishing fleet. 

Chart du jour: Europe enters the red

Chart showing Eurozone's 2020 budget deficit as a % of GPD

According to FT estimates, the eurozone’s budget deficit has ballooned to an estimated €976bn for 2020 — equivalent to 8.9 per cent of the bloc’s GDP. This is almost 10 times the deficit of last year. Normally, a spending surge of such magnitude would set off alarm bells in Brussels, but the Covid-19 pandemic has given the EU, and other global organizations, a new financial mantra: spend. (chart via FT)

Europe news round-up

  • With coronavirus on the rise across the continent, Belgium seems to be on the edge of losing control: the country’s health minister described the increase in infections as a “tsunami”, as it recorded the highest rate of infection in western Europe. In a sign of growing pressure on healthcare services, labs are also struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of tests requested. (Guardian, Brussels Times)

  • The EU is set to break into the bond market this week when it sells 10- and 20-year bonds to fund its EU-wide reinsurance scheme. Brussels has issued bonds before, roughly €50bn, but debt from the €100bn SURE scheme and upcoming €750bn recovery fund will make the EU a major player in the global bond market for the first time. (FT)

  • European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde speaks to Le Monde about the union’s €750bn recovery fund, creating a digital euro and climate change. In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Lagarde urges member states to make as much use of the money as possible or miss a “historic opportunity to change the situation”.

  • Hungary seems to be moving towards a more hostile policy on LGBT rights after the backlash to the publication of a recent book crystallised fears of rising homophobic rhetoric in the country. The book, Wonderland Is For Everyone, is an anthology of children’s stories that features some LGBT characters. Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban has accused it of crossing a “red line”. (Reuters)

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Coming up

EU fisheries ministers are in Luxembourg on Tuesday to talk about fishing quotas. In the afternoon, the European Fiscal Board will publish its latest annual report on the bloc’s fiscal policy and ideas for how to reform the Stability and Growth Pact.

jim.brunsden@ft.com; @jimbrunsden



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