British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned British voters will turn on him if he sacrifices UK fishing for a favourable post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union.
Boris Johnson’s Europe advisor David Frost travelled to Brussels earlier this week, armed with a team of some 100 UK officials, for the first round of post-Brexit trade talks with the European Union and chief negotiator Michel Barnier. The UK and EU both published their negotiating mandates last week ahead of the crunch trade talks, with both sides hoping to secure a full trade agreement (FTA). But the plans have highlighted massive cracks in negotiations across a number of key areas in the post-Brexit future relationship.
Mr Johnson wants a deal with the EU to be concluded before the end of the transition period in December, which he is refusing to extend.
The Prime Minister has threatened to walk away from the negotiating table in June if he feels insufficient progress has been made up to that point.
One of the main sticking points in negotiations is fishing access after the transition period, which has sparked a furious war of words between the two sides.
The UK is refusing to back down from its stance of allowing EU vessels to fish in British waters, a tactic which has left several EU leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, fuming.
Mr Johnson has vowed the UK will “take back control of our waters” after, and has vowed to do everything possible to protect UK fishermen when negotiation the free trade agreement with the EU.
But the Prime Minister has been warned any move away from that strategy could wipe out the huge majority his Conservative Party gained in December’s general election.
Campaign Group Fishing For Leave said “The real cost of sacrificing fishing is political. It would enrage the public who see fishing as totemic.
“It would cost the Conservatives a host of coastal constituencies, particularly those in Scotland that underpin the Union.
“The sacrifice of fishing could tip the scales to a second referendum on Scottish independence and the break up of Britain, which is a far higher cost than anything the EU is offering.”
Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warcik University, admitted UK fishing’s overall contribution to country’s economy is minimal, but warned Tory MPs still have significant numbers of voters from the fishing community and claimed it could be a “deal breaker” in talks with the EU.
He said: “Fisheries are a very emotive issue, although the contribution to GDP is small. A number of Conservative MPs, including some in marginal constituencies, have significant numbers of voters from the fishing community.
“This extends beyond the fishermen themselves and includes the auctioneers, those who maintain the boats and the processing sector. Communities like Newlyn in Cornwall are highly reliant on fishing which is seen as a way of life.
”Around 70 percent of the UK catch is landed in the EU, so if tariffs were applied, the industry could be hard hit. Any delays in Channel crossings would be problematic. This is a key issue for France, Spain and the Netherlands who current use what would become British waters.
“Any prolonged disruption or raised tariffs would lead to financial damage and job losses.
“Fishing rights are a key issue and could be a deal breaker. It will be difficult for Boris Johnson to back down because of the likely reaction from Conservative voters, even to agreeing a compromise.
“It should also be noted that a considerable proportion of the industry is in Scotland, so it has the potential to further inflame Anglo-Scottish relations.
Kostas Maronitis, lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Trinity University, highlighted how Mr Johnson is never afraid to upset other countries, particularly over disagreements with the US over awarding Huawei a contract to build part of the UK’s 5G national infrastructure.
But he warned: “For the French government and by association the EU negotiators, fishing is considered an integral part of the present and future negotiations.
“Fishing in the EU employees less than 180,000 people but as a profession it is vital to the economy of coastal communities.
“No government wants to be seen ignoring people who have been left behind over the course of globalisation.
“Very few people will be affected if the UK government compromises over the country’s fishing rights due to the small size of the fishing industry.
“But the UK government will fall short on two distinctive yet interrelated issues: proclamations over taking back control would end up a campaign slogan devoid of any political meaning; and the government’s “levelling up” agenda will be compromised.
“The fishing sector in the UK is considerably small but if Boris Johnson chooses to ignore concerns and anxieties over fishing and control of waters, the “levelling up” agenda will seriously be compromised.”