Observations of an Expat - Brexit—A Fishy Tale

Observations of an Expat: Brexit—A Fishy Tale

Blogs

Observations of an Expat - Brexit—A Fishy TaleUp 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.

By Tom Arms

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-organized 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 tons 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 Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is the London-based American foreign affairs journalist. He has nearly half a century’s experience of world affairs, and has written and broadcast for American, British and Commonwealth outlets. Positions he held included foreign correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, editor and founding CEO of an international diary news service. He is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War,” “The Falklands Crisis” and “World Elections on File.” His new book “America: Made in Britain” will be published next year.
{The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Sindh Courier}

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *