When it comes to the contentious issue of dividing up fishing rights and quotas between the EU and the U.K. post Brexit, it’s been one step forward, two steps back.
Both sides had agreed in the Political Declaration on the future relationship, signed last year, to reach an agreement on fish by July 1, making the next round of negotiations, which begins Tuesday, crucial. It’s also the last chance both sides will have to make any progress before a high-level conference later in June, where leaders must determine whether or not to extend the Brexit transition period beyond December 31.
But while the European Commission might be looking for a way to break the impasse on the issue, member countries and the U.K. are sticking to their guns.
After the last negotiating round in mid-May, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was carefully optimistic about the talks on fish. “We were able to initiate the beginnings of a dialogue on fisheries, even if our positions remain very far apart,” Barnier told reporters afterward.
However, the U.K. seems less optimistic. Speaking to MPs on the House of Commons Brexit committee Wednesday, Barnier’s counterpart David Frost said a deal isn’t on the horizon anytime soon. “I am beginning to think we might not make it by the 30th of June … but we will keep trying.”
The EU’s fishing communities are highly dependent on access to the waters around Britain, and Brussels is pushing to maintain current quotas and access rights.
He added: “We don’t regard fisheries as something that can be traded for any other bits of the negotiation,” and said the July 1 deadline is just an aspiration and not “an absolute requirement.”
Fish has become one of the most contentious issues of the trade negotiations. The EU’s fishing communities are highly dependent on access to the waters around Britain, and Brussels is pushing to maintain current quotas and access rights. The U.K., on the other hand, has turned the issue into one of national sovereignty, saying it will decide who can fish — and how much they can catch — in its territorial waters.
It’s one of few issues where the U.K. has the upper hand. If there’s no agreement, the U.K. could theoretically cut off access for EU vessels to its waters.
After the last round, London believed Barnier was looking for some wriggle room in Brussels’ approach.
But that won’t fly with the EU’s coastal countries.
For the first time since the start of the negotiations, Barnier this week consulted with fisheries ministers from France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium. Their message was clear: There is no room for compromise by the EU.
“There was nervousness after some press reports that the EU would be willing to concede on fish,” said one EU official. “That meeting had already been planned, but it was good to reassure EU countries that we were sticking to our plan.”
“The unanimity among ministers was striking,” said one EU diplomat who listened in on the meeting. “Ministers all stressed how important it was that the Commission is sticking to its negotiating mandate.”
“All ministers expressed full confidence in Michel Barnier and his team to defend the essential objectives and principles set down in the mandate,” Irish Marine Minister Michael Creed said afterward. “I reiterated Ireland’s full commitment to the EU negotiating mandate and delivering an outcome that upholds our existing access and quota shares. That position was also supported by other ministers.”
Devil in the details
Both sides also admit the fundamental differences haven’t been touched upon yet in the talks.
The first is the link with the wider trade agreement. For the EU, an agreement on fishing is a precondition to a wider deal. “Fisheries must not be an adjustment variable or a political symbol in the Brexit equation. No fisheries agreement means no post-Brexit agreement,” François-Xavier Bellamy, who is responsible for the file in the European Parliament’s fish committee, said this week.
The U.K. on the other hand insists on separating the two. It refers to the different deadlines for a fish deal and an overall deal, which imply that there are two different negotiations. Consequently, London rejects the EU’s warning that failing to strike a deal on fish would have consequences for what has been agreed upon in a future trade deal.
The two sides also don’t agree on the methodology of how to allocate quotas.
The EU divides the total number of catches among countries using a fixed allocation percentage — this is called “relative stability.” The U.K wants to use “zonal attachment” — calculating quotas based on where the fish live instead of historical agreements — which will likely lead to more fishing rights for U.K. vessels in British waters.
“At the moment, it is difficult to see common ground between the British proposals and the EU negotiating mandate of the member states” — Hilde Crevits, Flemish minister for fisheries
The EU diplomat said that fishing countries were unanimous during their meeting with Barnier that they are not ready to accept the zonal attachment approach.
“At the moment, it is difficult to see common ground between the British proposals and the EU negotiating mandate of the member states,” Flemish Minister for Fisheries Hilde Crevits told POLITICO.
Compromise on the horizon?
Fisheries was one of the few areas where EU countries toughened Barnier’s negotiating mandate ahead of the talks. They changed the initial text, which said provisions should “build upon” existing reciprocal access to say they must “uphold” existing reciprocal access.
However, skepticism among other non-coastal member nations is growing. “The fisheries countries must be aware that the status quo is simply not achievable,” said an EU diplomat from a non-fishing country. “There will come a moment that both sides, including the EU, has to compromise to strike a deal. Maybe we have to rethink our approach.”
According to the first EU official, one way out might be to look at fish stocks individually instead of agreeing on the principles of an overall deal first. That way, both sides could end up with a set of acceptable criteria, which could be a mix of zonal attachment, historical catches, relative stability and others.
That suggestion was raised during the previous round. But given the U.K. shares over a hundred stocks with the EU, such a process will take time.
On fish, as on other issues, next’s week negotiating round will most likely be nothing more than a lead-up to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposed visit to Brussels to break the impasse, and the high-level conference at the end of June. “Don’t expect any breakthroughs next week,” the EU official said.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.