Observations of an expat: Brexit – a fishy tale

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The Brexit deadline came, went, came again and went again. Both sides look foolish. Which means that if nothing, else, both sides desperately want an agreement and neither side wants to be the one that walks away from the table.

Fish appear to be the biggest sticking point.  And the two countries at loggerheads are traditional foes Britain and France.

Economically speaking, neither country’s fishing industry makes much of a contribution to the respective GDPs, although the French industry is almost three times the size of the British. But they both have well-organised community-based political lobbies, backed up by history, tradition and an overwhelming sense of injustice.

Up until the 1950s Britain had the world’s largest fishing industry, and its dominant position stretched centuries into the past.  William Pitt the Elder called cod “British Gold” and Victorian Grimsby was the world’s biggest fishing port. Overfishing, the loss of the Icelandic waters, the extension of exclusive economic zones and finally, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), reduced the industry from whale to sprat. There are now 24,000 people employed in the British fishing business compared to 65,000 in the French.

The CFP was – is – a bad deal for British fishermen. This is mainly because it was negotiated on the basis of historic fish catches in the 1970s when the industry was still based on a distant water fleet and the British waters were left to a large degree to French, Belgian and Dutch fishermen.

British fishermen don’t expect a return to the glory days but they want the lion’s share of fish in the resource-rich British waters. Of the roughly 6.4 million tonnes of fish caught in EU waters in 2018, 7000,000 came from UK waters. The French want to hang on to what they’ve got.

The geographic realities of the fishing industry give it political power out of all proportion to its size or contribution to the economy. Fishing requires access to the sea which means that fishermen are concentrated in fishing ports. In the Scottish towns of Peterhead and Fraserburgh roughly 40 percent of the working population are employed in the business of fishing. Not surprisingly, these two towns bucked the Scottish trend and voted Brexit, as did most of the Southwest, Hull, Grimsby and Northeast England.

A constituency’s dependence on an industry means that one of the main responsibilities of the constituency’s elected representative is to protect that industry. It is not surprising therefore that Britain’s fishing communities are mainly represented by pro-Brexit, anti-CFP, conservative MPs, which gives the British fishing lobby a small but significant foothold in the ruling conservative government.

French fishermen have concentrated mainly in Calais, Boulogne and Brest. Calais is France’s most right-wing constituency. Forty-nine percent of its electorate voted in the 2015 presidential elections for the National Front (now National Rally) leader Marine Le Pen. With both eyes squarely set on the 2022 elections, President Emmanuel Macron has declared that French fishermen would not “in any situation” be sacrificed to Brexit.

French fishermen have issued a variety of threats if their quotas are cut. They will block British ferries from entering French ports and British fish exports – 75 percent of the entire catch – will be banned from EU markets.

British negotiator Lord David Frost has offered to replace a drop in English Channel quotas with an increase in fishing quotas in Scottish waters and the Celtic and Irish Seas. This is likely to add fuel to the Scottish independence debate with claims that Scottish fishermen are being sacrificed for an English Brexit. It is also unacceptable to the French because their fleet is comprised mainly of small vessels which restricts the distance they can travel to the fishing grounds.

It would appear that all the elements of a deadlock are firmly in place. Except that deadlock is synonym for “No Deal” Brexit. Both sides lose in that scenario. The French will likely be banned completely from UK waters and the British will be unable to sell their fish because they will be barred from EU markets. Common sense screams compromise. But is anyone listening?


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Do the Brits actually have the capability to police their own waters? Or the fishing boats to fish them? Some kind of transition, with the French gradually being phased out whilst perhaps paying a percentage of their earnings into a fund that the Brit’s can use to build a new fishing and policing fleet?

    Politically, getting the French to take back all the refugees who have entered the UK via France in exchange for continued fishing rights might work, otherwise an already weakened govn can’t be seen to give in.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Oct '20 - 8:47am

    “Basically the UK demands a special, privileged status, which clearly cannot happen.”

    Quite. How very imperialist!

  • Peter Martin 17th Oct '20 - 11:26am

    The world market for fish isn’t dependent on the EU. If they don’t want to buy UK fish there are others who will:


  • I wonder how many British fishermen will have gone out of business before these wonderful new opportunities come to fruition?

  • Bwrecksit

    How many people would want to work in the fishing industry ? If the French can threaten to blockade ports and stop British fish imports maybe those of our industries who would be badly affected by a no deal bwrecksit should tell the UK Government that unless a deal is forthcoming they will stop producing various essential goods until one is made. How long would the Government last if that happened ?

    Presumably if there is no deal French and other foreigners would be banned from fishing in our territorial waters and the Royal Navy would be required to remove any who tried to enter. We live in interesting times.

  • Just over two hundred years ago Turner was commissioned by the government to tour the West Country to paint the effects of a trade depression, there being no other means of recording visually such things.
    One painting, from Polperro(?), was of sardine fishing boats laid up due to the trade embargo with France as a result of the Napoleonic wars, which was apparently causing much economic hardship there.
    One wonders if a modern day Turner will be dispatched on a similar tour in the not to distant future, given the high percentage of UK caught fish exported to the EU.

  • I’m afraid this piece misses out some important points.

    Firstly, there is not one fishing industry with one common objective. In Scotland in particular the author completely fails to mention the important inshore and very profitable west coast fishing industry which exports premium exports to the EU. It does not support Brexit because regardless of any trade deal the regulatory inspection requirements of the UK being a third country is going to cripple it.

    Secondly as far as deep sea fishing is concerned, the author does not mention that a lot of the British quota has been sold on to foreign companies by the quota holders ( and that the UK Government’s quota distribution policy while in the EU favoured a few large undertakings).

    Thirdly, the UK industry is dependent on exports to the EU to sell a lot of what it catches as the author notes but so also is the sea food processing industry.

  • john oundle 18th Oct '20 - 1:24am

    Amazing that in our own territorial waters we are currently not allowed to catch the fish that this country consumes. But allow the french for example 84% of the cod quota that is then exported back to the UK.

    Is there anything more absurd than the CFP?

  • Andrew Tampion 18th Oct '20 - 5:24am

    John Oundle is right to point out that at least some of the fish caught by EU boats in UK waters is imported to the UK. So it follows that any loss caused by being tarriffs or blockades on fish exports to the EU will be offset by increased access to UK waters by British fisherman. Together with increased jobs in fish processing and other fishing related activities such as shipyards to build and service fishing boats this should ensure a net benefit to impoverished coastal communities.
    Further the EU can impose tarrriffs on UK fish exports. But unless there is an alternative source of supply then that is just a tax on their own consumers.

  • Andrew Tampion 18th Oct '20 - 5:31am

    I am no longer a party member so I don’t have a stake in this but it seems to me that Liberal Democrats “rejoin” advocates need to think carefully about how to deal with fishing.If we apply to rejoin and the EU insist on the CFP as a condition and some reassignment of quotas back to French etc fisherman then that is going to make it a harder sell.
    Also it’s going to make election campaigns more difficult in areas with strong fishing communities, like the South West which voted for Brexit and where the Party use to have several seats, now sadly Tory.

  • John Marriott 18th Oct '20 - 8:56am

    Given the fuss he’s kicking up about fishing rights it would appear that President Macron is in more trouble. Given the proportion of GDP that fishing takes up in the U.K., were he in charge over here, perhaps we would call him “President Micron”.

    It’s just a pity that all those UK fishing quotas were sold off to continental fisheries when we joined the EEC all those years ago, something else about the EU that its critics conveniently choose to ignore.

  • The decline of Grimsby, Hull, Fleetwood, etc, predates the CFP.. The UK government of the 1980s/early 90s are far more to blame than the ECC/EU in the currents mess.
    May I suggest looking up the terms ‘Pool’, ‘The Sector’, ‘Quota Hopping’, ‘Transferable Quotas’ etc..

  • The “Brexit deadline” was one pulled from thin air by Johnson and one that the EU never recognised, much less accepted. As such, the only “side” looking foolish from the missed “deadline” is Johnson.

  • John Littler 19th Oct '20 - 4:50pm

    Steve Cromer may well be right about the disguised “no deal” policy, although it is hard to be sure. Johnson is making some noises about wanting a deal and is under a lot of pressure from some MP’s and Industry to do so. But he is also under threat of a leadership challenge from Mogg/Redwood & the awkward squad ERG which could easily end his office
    Please god give us proper PR voting and this nightmare would never have happened

  • Andrew Tampion 20th Oct '20 - 7:00am

    John Littler “Please god give us proper PR voting and this nightmare would never have happened”
    A proper PR voting system would have given UKIP more than 80 seats in the 2015 General Election and probably more than that in 2020.
    The problem was not the voting system. But rather that a significant part of the electorate, perhaps a majority are not happy with the EU as it is currently constitute and want either reform of the EU or to leave.

  • Given the sudden changes to our world due to the Covid pandemic it seems the British populace are beginning to wake up an smell the coffee when it comes to realising where our best interests lie, if the most recent opinion polls are a true reflection on this subject.

  • Andrew Tampion 20th Oct '20 - 11:55am

    “it seems the British populace are beginning to wake up an smell the coffee when it comes to realising where our best interests lie”
    Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. We will never know because the present government don’t have to and therefore won’t call either a general election or a referendum so they won’t. Which means that both Rejoiners and Brexiteers can view the situation with their own biases.
    But this seems to have wandered a long way from Tom Arms’ article which is about fishing.
    In an attempt to draw it back to fishing it is useful to reflect on what might have been if Cameron and other EU enthusiasts had spent some time returning more of the quota of fish caught in British waters to British fisherman. Perhaps if the British share of the catch had been 60% instead of 40% then coastal communities would have been more inclined to vote Remain instead of Leave.
    This is not an academic point. If the opportunity to Rejoin arises and the EU negotiators demand the CFP and a return to the pre leaving quota: how do you want to play that? Are you just resigned to throwing fishing communities under the bus again to get back into the EU?

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