Boris Johnson is intent on reclaiming Britain’s fishing waters after being warned of the huge imbalance of trade enjoyed by European trawlermen.
The Prime Minister has ordered his chief negotiator, David Frost, to prioritise a fisheries agreement with the European Union that hands back control of the country’s waters to the Government. British negotiators have tabled a proposal based on the “existing precedent of the EU’s current fisheries agreement with Norway”. But Brussels has repeatedly rejected the plans, with Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief negotiator hopefully of securing continued reciprocal access to British waters under “existing conditions”.
Downing Street fears this is an attempt to simply continue the Common Fisheries Policy that has helped European trawlermen outcompete their British counterparts.
Mr Frost has advised his Taskforce Europe officials to consider the imbalances enjoyed by European boats in the current arrangements.
They were told for every £1 of fish caught by UK boats in EU waters, European vessels catch £5 in Britain’s waters.
Between 2012 and 2016, this saw British fishermen only land 94,000 tonnes, worth around £106 million, from EU waters.
But European trawlermen managed to land 739,000 tonnes fish from Britain’s waters, worth some £521 million, during the same period.
In a new fisheries proposal tabled by Britain ahead of this week’s negotiating round, Mr Frost tells his EU counterpart Mr Barnier that the Government expects a separate fisheries treaty.
Brussels is demanding all elements of the post-Brexit relationship – trade, fisheries, aviation and energy, are housed in a single overarching deal.
The Government believes this is an “unreasonable” request and is in breach of the Political Declaration.
A UK spokesman said: “Our position on fish is reasonable and straightforward.
“We want a separate fisheries framework agreement which reflects our rights under international law and which provides for annual negotiations over access and sharing opportunities based on the scientific principle of zonal attachment, with sustainability at its core.”
“The Political Declaration clearly sets out that an agreement on fish should be in force by July – just over two months away,” they added.
“Yet the EU continues to push for one single overarching agreement, despite that clearly being at odds with the Political Declaration, which envisages a separate agreement on fisheries.”
British negotiators have made clear that no amount of negotiations will see them change their mind.
They hope that EU leaders will eventually intervene to change Mr Barnier’s negotiating mandate in order to break the impasse.
A high-level meeting between Mr Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June is expected to play a crucial role in moving on the stalled talks.
The two sides will hold one more round of virtual trade negotiations next month before the meeting.
EU officials believes trade talks will have to be delayed beyond the end of the transition period if there is to be any chance of a deal.
Mr Johnson has said he will not extend the post-Brexit transition period, which keeps Britain tied to the EU’s rulebook, even after negotiations were hindered by the coronavirus pandemic.
European capitals have called on Brussels to offer the Prime Minister a way to support a delay to talks.
Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney has said the EU needed to do more to persuade Downing Street to extend the standstill arrangement before it expires on January 1, 2020.
He said: “Covid-19 has made what is already a very, very difficult timeline to get agreement virtually impossible.
“If we’re going to have any chance of persuading Britain to take more time then we need to be careful about how we do that because demanding it from them – almost as a concession to the EU, is certainly not the way to do it.”