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How the battle over fishing rights could scupper Theresa May’s Brexit deal



theresa may fish 1Getty

  • Fishing rights have become a major issue in Brexit
  • The UK government this week
    pleaded with Conservative MPs
    who believe May’s Brexit deal
    sacrifices UK fishing industry, to back her deal.
  • The issue could be a major stumbling block to the prime
    minister securing a future trade deal.

LONDON — Britain’s fishing industry may be relatively small,
accounting for less than half a percent of UK GDP, but it has
played an outsized role in Brexit negotiations.

This is partly because it is such a symbolic industry for an
island nation like Britain and partly because it stands to be
re-shaped more radically by Brexit than perhaps any other sector.
It could also yet be an issue which helps to derail Theresa May’s
chances of securing a trade deal with the EU in the next few

Here’s why

The issue is simple enough. After Brexit, the UK will reclaim
sovereign control of its waters, which for decades have been
subject to the EU’s deeply unpopular Common Fisheries Policy

British fishermen say the CFP represents a raw deal for their
industry. Ever since the policy was implemented, the UK has
received a disproportionately small share of Europe’s fishing
stocks. Its boats get 9% of English Channel cod, even though
almost all the catches are made in UK waters. French boats, by
comparison, get 84%.and its members overwhelmingly supported
Brexit as a means of putting an end to Britain’s participation in
the policy.

Many in the fishing industry hoped that Brexit would see the UK
restrict access to foreign vessels and manage its fish stocks
independently. But the EU is fiercely opposed to that plan and
intends to demand access to British waters for European vessels
in return for a free trade deal.

Supporter sail in protest, staged by fishermen and fishing communities from the campaign group 'Fishing for Leave' in ports across the country, against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit transition deal, in Hastings, Britain April 8, 2018.
sail in protest, staged by fishermen and fishing communities from
the campaign group ‘Fishing for Leave’ in ports across the
country, against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit transition
deal, in Hastings, Britain April 8, 2018.

Reuters / Peter Nicholls

That dispute will need to be resolved before either side can
agree on a trade deal. For her part, Theresa May told MPs on
Thursday that she had “firmly rejected” EU demands for access to
British waters in return for a trade deal, and said the political
declaration — a document which outlines the UK and EU’s
aspirations for their post-Brexit relationship — was a win for

But moments later, the EU’s deputy chief Brexit negotiator Sabine
Weyand shot back, tweeting that a fisheries agreement was “in the
best interest of both sides,” sharing research which suggested
Britain needs imports of EU cod for its fish and chips, not
mackerel and herring. 

Only one side can win that dispute. Given the precedent of the
last two years, the EU will be confident that the UK will
eventually cave in to its demands and agree to some form of
cooperative agreement. And it could well be in Britain’s
interests, too: If the UK closed its waters to EU vessels, the EU
could simply respond by slapping tariffs on UK exports of fish.
As the UK exports 80% of its fish to European waters, that would
be a huge problem. 

The pressure on Theresa May over the row is set to escalate this
weekend. A
leaked document
due to be agreed at a summit of EU leaders on
Sunday will declare that the post-Brexit arrangements over
fishing rights will build on the much-hated current arrangements,
saying any future agreement must protect the rights of European
fishing fleets. 

Much is at stake: The document goes onto warn that failure by
Britain to come to an agreement on the issue could result in the
EU refusing to grant the UK an extension of the transition
period, which Theresa May is likely to require in order to
negotiate an EU trade deal and avoid the unpopular backstop.

The government, for its part, insists the UK has no intention of
maintaining existing access. But if it is the price of a trade
deal, further concessions may well be on the way.

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