January 16, 1809 Sir John Moore, general of the British army responsible for the troops sent to Spain to help contain the Napoleonic invasion, fell mortally wounded in the battle of Elviña, while defending the Galician coast from the French attack in order to evacuate his troops.
Today, however, it is the British who defend every last meter of their coastline against the supposed threat of French and Spanish fishermen, who only aspire to continue fishing after Brexit as they have been doing for decades. The problem is that this battle can end up torpedoing the entire Brexit negotiation.
The European Union has established three conditions to be able to approve a Definitive Relationship Agreement after Brexit with the United Kingdom: a fishing agreement, a commitment to fair competition (avoid the competitive use of state aid and environmental, labor and tax regulations) and a minimum governance of the agreement (management and supervision, dispute resolution mechanism, effective application and jurisdictional order).
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Spanish fishing sector would lose access to some 9,000 tons per year, less than 1% of the total, although of high-value species such as hake or monkfish
Of the three, the one that has most surprised many is the demand for an agreement in the field of fisheries. And not because it is undesirable, but because it is established as a key factor in the negotiations. The explanation is not to be found in the quantitative importance of the sector in terms of GDP or employment, but in its social and regional importance: there are few activities whose jobs revolve so much around very specific places. Spain is the EU country where fishing activity absorbs more direct employment (together with Greece and Italy they account for around 65% of the European total), and also the one that fishes the most tons annually (followed closely by Denmark), although its activity in the maritime zone of the United Kingdom (Gran Sol and Malvinas) is less important than that of France, Ireland or the Netherlands. In the event of a Brexit without an agreement, the Spanish fishing sector would lose access to some 9,000 tons per year, less than 1% of the total, although of high-value species such as hake, monkfish or rooster, and harming more than one hundred ships, 1,700 direct jobs and another 6,800 indirects.
What are the positions of both parties? It should be remembered that the Common Fisheries Policy governs the EU, which implies two things: permanent access to the territorial waters of the rest of the Member States – shared as “EU waters” – and the annual distribution of maximum catches per species (TAC ) according to national quotas established in the 1970s. The United Kingdom considers that it badly negotiated its quotas at the timeAlthough that was 48 years ago, when the territorial waters of the countries only covered 12 nautical miles (since 1982, each country has 200 miles within its so-called “Exclusive Economic Zone” or EEZ).
The EU intends to maintain the the state and guarantee, as far as possible, stable access and catches that can only be modified by mutual agreement, while the British Government wants to discuss each year both the access of EU vessels to UK waters and the catch quotas (which I would prefer to calculate based on the percentage of species in each EEZ, known as “zonal linkage”). This is what other states such as Norway do (who, by the way, refused to be part of the EU, among other things, for not joining the Common Fisheries Policy).
The EU, of course, is aware that the current situation cannot last indefinitely, but wants the conditions of access to British waters to gradually change, to avoid major disruption to European fishermen who have traditionally fished in UK waters. . Also fear the technical nightmare of having to negotiate the catches of multiple species annually. Some countries, like France, are taking a very rigid position.
Fish don’t have a passport
Are there reasons for an agreement on fisheries? I think so, for at least five reasons.
In the first place, because, although the United Kingdom did not want to let anyone enter its territorial waters, according to the Convention of the Sea In any case, it would have to allow other countries to access the part of the TAC established for its EEZ that it has not been able to cover with its own fleet.
Second, because cooperation is essential to resource sustainability: as the EU does with Norway, catches must always be negotiated, not only because the fish do not carry a passport (they are caught where they are found, and not where they have been raised), but also because if each country sets its own TAC as much as possible fishing grounds are likely to be depleted.
Third, because of the business interdependencies of the British fishing fleet. Unlike many countries, which allocate their quotas based on socio-economic and regional considerations, the UK sees them as private rights that can be freely bought, sold and rented; This has led, on the one hand, to strong internal concentration (in 2018 Greenpeace estimated that more than a quarter of the quotas were in the hands of just five families) and, on the other, to a large outsourcing (more than 90% of the British quota of herring is in the hands of European companies, and more than 60% of the tonnage landed in British ports is caught by foreign ships).
80% of all fish exported by the UK is sold within the EU, and some sectors such as shellfish, cod and mackerel are totally dependent on their European sales
Fourth, because the UK is not going to chip away everything it can catch. The other side of access to British fishing grounds is access to the European market, its best customer: 80% of all fish exported by the United Kingdom is sold within the EU, and some sectors such as seafood, cod, herring and mackerel are totally dependent on their European sales.
Fifth, because the political motivation is unclear. Although the vast majority of UK fishing communities (to the south, east and on the Northern Irish coast) voted in favor of Brexit, The UK’s largest fishing port, by far, is Petershend in Scotland, whose government would not welcome another blow to its economy from Brexit that they never wanted.
Greater control share
Is there a possibility of agreement? It is reasonable that the UK wants to have a higher quota and more control over its resources, and it is reasonable that the European Union wants to maintain a minimum legal certainty for its fishermen so that they do not have to be at the risk of difficult negotiations every year. A certain gradualism is perfectly compatible with an agreement that provides legal certainty in the short and medium term.
Sovereignty is only good if it has practical implications. If it comes to slowly restructuring their access and catches, the UK is within their rights. If it is only about closing itself to the outside, it should be remembered that before World War II (when the United Kingdom was still an empire) territorial waters were much less than the current 200 miles. They did not even reach 12, but were considered to be limited to the distance that could be reached with the firing of a cannonball from the coast.
A cannonball was precisely what killed Sir John Moore. He managed to repel the onslaught of the French and embark his troops back to the United Kingdom and won – apart from an elegy of Rosalia de Castro– an eternal rest with sea views in the Jardines de San Carlos, one of the most beautiful places in La Coruña. But he did not survive, and his grave serves as a permanent reminder that defend the coast with cannon fire it is always much more expensive than promoting commercial cooperation.