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Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

UK and EU negotiators are now targeting a mid-November deadline to reach a trade agreement. This would give the European Parliament enough time to consider the treaty and hold a vote on it in the last session of the year, due in the week of December 14 – only two weeks before the Brexit transition period ends.

A fortnight ago, a public row erupted due to the apparent suggestion from EU leaders that further compromises all had to come from the UK side and that this was a precondition for “intensified” negotiations. After Downing Street declared the talks “over”, some on the EU side, including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister, sought to immediately defuse the situation, saying the bloc was also willing to make concessions. Ultimately, it took Michel Barnier’s speech to the European Parliament, in which he said it was his intention to “seek the necessary compromises on both sides”, to get the UK to confirm that talks were back on track.

After these theatrics, the EU does appear to have dropped its insistence that the most difficult areas must be settled before progress can be made on lower hanging fruit. The Financial Times reports that much of the talks this week have been engaged with the technical process of agreeing common legal text in areas where there is already considerable agreement, including many of the rules for trade in goods and services, with a mixture of EU and UK drafts being used to reach a consolidated text.

The fact that very little has leaked out of this week’s round of talks is a positive sign that these negotiations are now serious and, indeed, “intensive”. Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, this week stated optimistically that: “We’re likely to get a deal, but it won’t be easy.” Charles Michel, the EU Council President, was more equivocal, noting that the two sides have yet to overcome their differences on “level playing field” guarantees, fishing, and the deal’s enforcement.

As I noted in my previous column, the differences over subsidies seem to be narrowing and fishing is increasingly emerging as the major sticking point.

Fishing’s political symbolism is outsized compared to its economic importance to either side. The industry is not significant across the UK – it makes up only around 0.1 per cent of gross value added. The economic contribution is similar in Spain, Denmark and France, which together account for over half the total EU catch.

On the UK side, we know that the Common Fisheries Policy was long viewed as one of the major inequities of British membership and fishing communities were among the most vocal supporters of Leave in the EU referendum. In 2017, around 35 per cent of fish landed by EU vessels from the north Atlantic came from UK waters. By contrast, only 13 per cent of fish landed by UK vessels came from EU waters.

There is a certain romance that an island nation attaches to the sea-faring industry. But cold, hard political realities also explain the significance of fishing in this negotiation. Although not a major national employer, the industry is of course very important to particular communities – often remote, such as along the west coast of Scotland, in Wales and Northern Ireland, with limited other employment opportunities – and, ultimately, the negotiation is a zero-sum game for both sides. More fishing quota for the UK means less for the EU.

For a Conservative Government with increasing reason to be concerned about the state of the Union, there is obvious political benefit to ensuring a better settlement. According to the Government’s statistics, the UK’s largest and most valuable fish landings are in the north-east of Scotland, where larger trawlers tend to operate. 40 per cent of fishers working on UK boats are on Scottish boats. Should the UK gain extra quota, this region is likely to benefit the most. A Brexit dividend for Scotland would be an important win.

The EU knows that the UK has leverage when it comes to fishing access. A failure to reach a deal would mean the UK was under no obligation to provide access to foreign boats at all. Brussels had therefore wanted a deal on fishing rights settled in July, well before the final horse-trading of end-game negotiations.

Nevertheless, a wider trade deal – if it includes a better quota share – is also in the interests of the UK fishing industry. The UK imports most of the fish British consumers want to eat but exports most of the fish UK vessels catch. The EU is by far the biggest market for UK exports. It should also be noted that the wider fish processing industry is a larger, although less vocal, employer than the catch sector. Failure to reach a trade deal would increase costs for UK exports and the processing industry via new trade barriers.

Brussels’ starting position – described as “maximalist” by Barnier – was essentially that its fishing rights in UK waters should not change after the transition period. The EU has so far turned down the UK’s request to move to a new regime of annual quota negotiations – a model the UK recently agreed with Norway.

A possible compromise is likely to rest on establishing a process under which EU fleets’ catch would be phased down over a number of years. The UK would regain a much greater share of future catch opportunities but EU fishing communities would be assured of their rights over the medium-term. How the 100 or so stocks that are up for discussion might be apportioned could also present opportunities to ensure certain political constituencies are prioritised.

So far, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has been steadfast in his belief that the EU should stand firm on fishing access, vowing to scupper any Brexit deal that “sacrifices” French fishermen. He is aware of a potential political backlash in coastal and rural areas.

However, despite the rhetoric, reports suggest that in private, at least, the French government is preparing the industry for a compromise. It should be noted that Macron is also effectively negotiating with the rest of the EU about how much of the residual quota France will get in the future.

Given the wider economic and political issues at stake, it still seems unlikely that fishing will be the deal-breaker. Macron is likely to come under increasing pressure from member states most exposed to no deal – Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – to moderate his position. However, it is clear that the political choreography of reaching a deal on this issue is vitally important on both sides of the table.

74 comments for: Stephen Booth: The Brexit trade talks, the romance and realities of fishing, and its crucial importance for Scotland

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