Belgium claims a 1666 royal privilege to continue fishing in English waters after Brexit

  • If there is no agreement on January 1, no European fishing vessel will be able to fish in British waters

The defenders of ‘Brexit’ always included among their promises one that gave them the most votes among the British fishing sector, small but politically important in some regions, especially in the south of England. They were told that after the United Kingdom of the European Union (EU) British waters would be exclusively for British fishing boats, Except in the eventual scenario of a fisheries agreement with the EU that for now seems out of reach of the negotiators. If there is no agreement on January 1, no European fishing vessel will be able to fish in British waters.

That was the general idea of ​​the future of European fishing in British waters until the Belgian representative in Coreper – the body that brings together diplomats from member states accredited to the European institutions – produced a document from 1666 entitled ‘Privilege of the Visscherie’ (Fishermen’s privilege) and Discovered in the archives of the city of Bruges in 1963 after more than a century forgotten after first use in the middle of the 19th century.

El ‘Privilegie der Visscherie’ It was a prebend that in 1666 the English King Charles II granted to the Flemish city of Bruges in gratitude for the three years (1656-1659) that he had spent there. That document established that 50 fishing boats from the Flemish city of Bruges could fish without limits “and for eternity” in English waters. Bruges is not a sea port but through its canals fishing boats and barges can go out to the North Sea through the port of Zeebrugge.

The Belgian representative in Coreper made his case after the president of the Flanders region, Geert Bourgeois, aappears on Flemish public television VRT with a copy of the original document. Belgian diplomacy is now trying to make London honor the promise made 354 years ago by an English king.

Charles II of England, grateful guest of Bruges

Charles II lived outside England as a refugee since he was expelled in 1651 by Oliver Cromwell. After passing through Paris and Cologne he tried to reach Brussels but could not because of the refusal of Felipe IV of Spain, who did not want to antagonize Cromwell. The solution was to allow him to reside under anonymity in Bruges, one of the most important cities of then Spanish Flanders.

Three years later, in 1659, when Richard Cromwell succeeded his father Oliver, Charles II returned to England and in 1660 officially regained the throne. Six years later, Felipe IV sent to London as ambassador one of the friends that Carlos II had made in Bruges, the Spanish Arrázola de Oñate. His mission was to negotiate a treaty. That treaty was lost but among its clauses appears the ‘Privilegie der Visscherie’.

Documento Privilegie der Visscherie de 1666Idafe Martin

1849, first use of Privilege

The validity of that privilege has already been put into practice on two occasions. The first was in 1849. The young Kingdom of Belgium was negotiating a fishing convention with the United Kingdom. London wanted its fishing vessels to have exclusive access to its waters up to three miles from its coast. Belgium wanted its fishing vessels to be able to fish without geographical limitations.

The Bruges Chamber of Commerce reminded the Belgian Government of the existence of the ‘Privilegie der Visscherie’. The British Government assured that it did not have proof of the existence of that document, but ended up recognizing its validity with conditions: it demanded that if any Belgian fishing vessel were arrested he could in that case plead the Privilege before the British courts.

Belgium did not follow that path and signed the convention it had negotiated, but left a reservation: “without prejudice to the rights that Belgian fishing vessels could get from the letters of King Charles II.”

1963, the councilor who wanted to be arrested

The second time was in 1963. That year, Victor Depaepe, councilor of Bruges, he wrote to the British and Belgian governments advising them that he wanted to be arrested fishing in British waters so that he could be taken to a British court and claim his rights under the ‘Privilegie der Visscherie’.

On July 8, 1963, his small fishing boat, christened ‘King Carlos II’ entered British waters. Bourgeois explained the case: “He knew he was going to be arrested by the British and expected to be brought before a court. But it didn’t happen ”.

A British patrol boat approached the fishing boat and forced it to sail to English port. Depaepe, as he wanted, was arrested, but the British had noticed. The councilor was released and allowed to return to Belgium without further proceedings because the British Justice found that this ‘Privilegie der Visscherie’ was still legally valid.


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