Trade

EU, UK fishing in troubled waters in Brexit talks

When it comes to the contentious issue of dividing up fishing rights and quotas between the EU and the U.K. post Brexit, its 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. Its 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, Barniers counterpart David Frost said a deal isnt 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 EUs 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 dont 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 EUs 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.

Its one of few issues where the U.K. has the upper hand. If theres no agreement, the U.K. could theoretically cut off access for EU vessels to its waters.

Doubling down

After the last round, London believed Barnier was looking for some wriggle room in Brussels approach.

But that wont fly with the EUs 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 Irelands 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 havent been touched upon yet in the talks.

A fisherman off the coast of northern France | Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

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 Parliaments fish committee, said this week.

The U.K. on the other hand insists on separating the two. It refersto the different deadlines for a fish deal and an overall deal, which imply that there are two different negotiations. Consequently, London rejects the EUs 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 dont 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 toRead More – Source