This morning’s media reports suggested that the Government was inching towards a compromising on fishing which might finally ‘unlock’ the negotiations with the European Union and avoid a no-deal Brexit in January.
According to Raoul Ruparel, a former special advisor at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), this involved rowing back on the scale of the reduction in the fishing quote they’re seeking, the implementation of a ‘transition period’, and setting up an ‘independent arbitration panel’, as well as a break clause.
Whilst this does involve a climbdown on Boris Johnson’s part, Ruparel suggests it would still be a good deal for the British fishing industry, increasing their share of the catch in UK waters by a share “worth between €140m-€200m” whilst also protecting the ~€100m worth British vessels currently catch in EU waters: in all “a significant gain in the value of fish caught by UK vessels and indeed no loss from now”. Which might be why this afternoon’s media reports brought word that Brussels had rejected it.
There may yet be a breakthrough. Both sides are under pressure to compromise, the Times reports, over fears that the entire free trade agreement is being jeopardised by a dispute over something worth less than €100 million. But as it stands the Government may well choose a no-deal exit rather than back down. Why?
Certainly there is no shortage of British commentators vocally baffled by the weight that the Prime Minister has given to fishing in the negotiations, and keen to point out that the industry’s contribution to the national economy is less than that of individual companies such as Harrods or Games Workshop. But it’s easy to take a high-minded view about that’s best for the economy overall when you live in a region or work in a sector that’s feeling the benefits.
Like mining a generation before, fishing has become totemic because its fate captures how certain communities have been ‘left behind’, as Johnson might put it, by the direction of UK economic policy during our EU membership. The rejoinder to the smart-alec statistics is that the small size of today’s industry is not lost on Brexit-backing coastal communities: but it is viewed as a problem, not just a fact.
And just as the referendum itself gave a section of the British public a rare and very unwelcome taste of being on the losing side, so too has the Government’s emphasis on fish been an overdue induction into how it feels when national policy is set by someone else’s priorities.
(There is also a wearisome double-standard at work when the very people who decried ministers’ preparedness to ‘break international law’ via the UK Internal Market Bill also decry their plans to uphold international law by policing British fishing waters in the event of no deal.)
From the moment Bob Geldof flipped v-signs at fishermen on the Thames, if not before, this issue became a bigger part of Brexit than its cash value would suggest. Johnson surely knows that getting a good deal for coastal communities – not least in Scotland – is an acid test not just for them, but for a substantial share of the new electoral coalition he’s built on the expectation that Brexit signalled a shift in the nation’s priorities.