Fishing: Why it is the first flashpoint issue in EU-UK trade talks
Donegal industry fears Irish boats losing the right to fish lucrative British waters.
Michael Cavanagh stands on the quayside in Killybegs, Ireland’s largest fishing harbour. He points at a docked trawler in Co Donegal port to give a sense of how large his own fishing boat is.
The Father McKee is the Greencastle man’s 65m trawler and is out with his sons in the north Bay of Biscay off France fishing for boarfish, a small fish used to make meal for feeding salmon. Cavanagh does not fish anymore – “too many birthdays”, says the 70-year-old.
The UK’s decision to exit the European Union and the potential closing of soon-to-be British waters, on top of existing restrictions, has made life stormier onshore for Irish fishermen like Cavanagh.
“We have more challenges ashore than when we are at sea,” says Cavanagh, buffeted by blustery Donegal weather on the quayside.
Even before negotiations on a trade deal between the EU and UK start on Monday, the two sides have already clashed over fishing rights. Fishing, it is feared, could be the biggest obstacle to a deal.
Brussels has tied any post-Brexit free trade agreement to a reciprocal deal on fisheries that will allow EU boats to fish in British waters and British-caught fish to be sold in EU markets.
In stark contrast, Britain’s negotiating position, set out last week, does not include fisheries as part of any future trade deal. Instead, the UK wants to stop European fishing vessels from accessing British waters and to negotiate any access and permitted catches on an annual basis.
Even though fishing accounts for just 0.1 per cent of the UK economy, the sector has become totemic of Boris Johnson’s dogged “take back control” political agenda heading into the trade negotiations. Protecting British waters have become a visceral symbol of Johnson’s post-Brexit vision. It is not surprising; Brexit and his trade plans enjoy strong support in the UK’s depleted coastal fishing communities. However, there are practical problems to his negotiating position.
“The UK wants to take back control of their fishing. On the other hand, they will have to recognise that most fish caught in British waters is exported to the EU, so there is not a lot of point in taking control of your waters if you don’t have an export market,” said David O’Sullivan, the Irish former EU director general for trade.
Fishing will be the first flashpoint issue as both sides have set July 1st as the target date for a deal on fisheries to give time for negotiations with third countries such as Norway and Iceland in October and November to finalise quota agreements on widely distributed fishing stocks.
“That is a tall order and extremely difficult but not impossible,” says Sean O’Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation.
The fact that migratory fish like mackerel caught by Donegal trawlers do not stop at man-made borders makes the range of potential solutions large and the negotiations highly complex.
“It is very difficult to explain to a fish that there is a border whereas you can do that to a human and a lorry driver,” Pascal Lamy, the former director general of the World Trade Organisation and a one-time EU trade commissioner, told The Irish Times.
In Donegal, Cavanagh sees the political posturing ahead of talks starting as “sabre-rattling”. However, the concern that fisheries would be cast adrift in favour of the more pressing post-Brexit arrangements facing other more lucrative and powerful industries is palpable in Killybegs. Cavanagh believes that the industry has “become the sacrificial lamb” of the negotiations.