Emmanuel Macron has threatened Britain that unless fishing access is agreed, there can be no further negotiations with the EU. However, according to former MP for Grimsby and Brexit campaigner Austin Mitchell, the French President’s “bullying” will ultimately fail as Britain can easily find a way to circumvent his intimidations.
Last week, sources close to the British negotiating team said the UK would stick to its demand to have “control over its coastal waters” – as it continues to hold out on submitting detailed plans on fishing rights to Brussels. Talks between the two sides have been continuing via video conference amid the coronavirus crisis, but Michel Barnier the EU’s chief negotiator, branded the latest round “disappointing” and accused the UK of not wanting to “commit seriously on a number of fundamental points”, including access to waters. Fishing has been a contentious point in talks between the two, with the UK highly critical of the EU’s longstanding Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which allows member states to fish in each others’ waters based on a quota system set by the bloc.
The EU’s own mandate for Brexit trade talks says the UK and Brussels should fix a long-term deal on access to each others’ waters in exchange for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), but the UK is pressing for annual talks to set those quotas – with the ability to block EU vessels if those discussions break down.
France is one of many nations dependent on British fishing grounds and before the negotiations even started, it was Emmanuel Macron’s government who had made clear to Mr Barnier that he had to push for stronger commitments on regulatory alignments in return for maintaining free trade.
In March, Mr Macron said he was willing to put up a fight over the issue.
He said: “If we do not get the same access as today, we will seek compensation.
“I will not let our fishermen be impacted by a British vote they could do nothing about.”
In a report for the Brexit think tank ‘Red Cell’ titled ‘Putting The Fisheries Negotiations Into Context’ and published in March, former Grimsby MP and Brexit campaigner Austin Mitchell explained why Mr Macron’s “bullying” will ultimately fail.
He said: “The first effort from France was to threaten import bans on British fish unless EU vessels got access to British waters.
“That looks potent since three quarters of our catches do go to the EU but in fact tariffs can hardly go higher than the minimum levels imposed on Iceland and Norway and will in any case be paid by the consumer.
“Endless red tape on perishable goods would be more difficult, but if the French state can’t control its own trade other states will take it.
“So, the next tactic is to insist that unless fishing access is agreed there can be no further negotiations, and no access for our valuable financial services.
“Such bullying will hardly appeal to other EU members and is in any case chronologically difficult since Britain leaves the EU at the end of this transitional year and then becomes an independent coastal state controlling its own waters under the UN law of the sea.
“The CFP then has no jurisdiction.”
Mr Mitchell noted: “That will reduce the EU’s claim to a simple demand for access.
“It will be pitched unacceptably high but is negotiable.
“Until the British fishing industry is rebuilt and reorganised there is fishing capacity to spare, as long as access is on a reducing scale and decided on an annual basis.”
The former MP explained that Britain can regulate fishing in the same way as they do in Norway, which allows some EU access on the basis of an annual review of sustainable catch levels based on scientific advice.
He added: “Supervised access to EU vessels is then agreed in return for swaps in British waters.
“British fishing could be run on the same basis with either swap arrangements or licence fees, a more substantial fishery protection effort to stop illegalities and cheating and a gradual phasing out of foreign fishing as the British industry builds up.
“That would create the certainty which investment requires, something the CFP has disastrously failed to do.”