French and other European vessels currently have access to British waters as part of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which sets quotas for member states active in shared European exclusive economic zone waters.
While deals between Britain and France as well as other EU countries to fish in shared waters predate the CFP, the nature of their evolution during the UK’s membership in the EU mean that shared access would effectively end with Brexit.
The UK parliament’s second rejection of the separation deal between London and Brussels has thus prompted French Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume to start considering there will be no new deal in place if Brexit enters into effect as planned on 29 March.
“It is possible that a ‘no deal’ may stop European fishers from going into British territorial waters,” Guillaume said. “That would be a tragedy, because many of our fisheries use these waters and they do not have the possibility to go elsewhere. Therefore, we have started considering social protection in the event that boats stop going out.”
Fishing access would end with no-deal Brexit
French and other European vessels currently carry out as much as 60 percent of their activity in British territorial waters, which far outweighs how much UK activity takes place in waters of other member states.
“About six times the fishing effort takes place in the UK zone by EU vessels as by UK vessels fishing in the UK zone,” explains Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in the UK.
“There’s a big disparity there which reflects this principle of equal access, and post-Brexit that access would not be automatic,” he says. “If there’s a no deal crash out, automatic access to the EU zone and EU vessels to the UK zone would end there and then.”
The French government’s proposal would concern those vessels suddenly unable to access the waters where they are accustomed to fishing, but it would offer little in the way of a permanent solution.
“Fishing companies do not want to just stay stopped and wait,” says Roxane Boullard of the regional committee of fisheries in Normandy, where some fishers conduct up to 30 percent of their activity in UK waters.
“We don’t really know what to expect. What is proposed now as an emergency measure in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”
French access and British exports key issues
It is logical that the French government would sound signals of protection after British MPs voted down the deal negotiated between the UK and the EU a second time on Tuesday.
“If the deal had been agreed, it would have been right for French fishers, because we could still have the access we have today until we could do up a new deal specific to fisheries with Britain.”
While the French are most concerned about access, the British industry’s main concern is in the future of its exports to the continent, especially in the event of a no-deal Brexit and defaulting to World Trade Organization rules.
“There’s a tariff issue, but there’s more concern about whether the customs arrangements would cause delay, and with a perishable commodity such as fresh or live fish, particularly shellfish, there is concern,” Deas says.
“But I think equally, there are businesses that depend on that trade on both sides of the Channel, and they’d be very keen to ensure that trade continues.”
Keeping good relations in everyone’s best interest
Deas also says the UK is keen to leave the CFP, whose quota shares are “asymmetric, essentially exploitative and have been at the UK’s severe disadvantage for 40 years.
“Although there are some concerns about the market dimension especially in the short term, the departure of the UK from the EU is seen as an opportunity to right those wrongs,” he says.
With some exceptions, namely the flaring up of a long-standing feud over scallops last year, both French and British players describe relations as being mostly cordial, and whatever happens with Brexit, there will inevitably be a future negotiation over both access and trade.
“I think fishers know it is in their best interest to try to keep good relations, but of course there is always some contention, because this whole situation is so uncertain,” says Boullard.
“The only thing we are certain about is that, for now, we are really worried and have much uncertainty. That’s all we can say for sure.”