international analysis and commentary

Fish and chips: the (tasty) details where the Brexit devil is


The “oven-ready” Brexit deal that Boris Johnson marketed just one year ago, during the United Kingdom’s snap elections, ended up being burnt outside and raw inside. With never-ending trade talks entering the 11th hour and no new self-imposed deadlines in sight but for the natural one on 31 December, both sides acknowledged that a no-deal is very likely and agreed to go “the extra-mile”. Even if the two parts agree on a text, a new race against time will begin to ratify it on time. However, this comes as no surprise. Since the very beginning, Brexit has been navigating in troubled waters.

Fishing boats faring in The Channel


First, there was the never-ending story of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the European Union (effective since 1 February 2020), stormed by the waves of raging political uncertainty inside 10 Downing Street, before and after hardliner Boris Johnson came into office.

Then, the UK Internal Market Bill steamed the debate, threatening to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement concerning trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, in breach of international law. As the only land border between the United Kingdom and the EU, Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU customs rules, whether there is a trade deal or not.

Now, there is the ongoing rush precisely to avoid a no-deal outcome of the transition period ending on 31 December and save the EU-UK trading relations from 2021 onwards. As the Brexit talks are nearing a point of no return, there are really three main knots to urgently untie: the “level playing field”, fishing rights, as well as the governance of the future deal.

The “level playing field” is one of the main buzzwords of the Brexit negotiations. This would require the UK to align with the EU’s regulatory standards (including state aid rules), Brussels asks. Otherwise, the pan-European supply chain could be among the most evident victims, throwing both British and EU companies into chaos.

In addition, there is the showdown on fishing rights that could result in a ban on EU vessels entering rich UK waters. This would be painful for the French industry that highly relies on the fishing opportunities in the UK’s maritime zone.

At this stage, the future of fishing is one of the negotiation’s sticking points, with both sides going back to confrontational language quoting sovereign rights, and the UK government even planning to deploy Royal Navy ships to patrol the country’s coastal waters in case of no-deal.

The possibility of disruptive consequences has started to loom with concerns that such a lethal cocktail might derail the negotiations, with practical impacts on kitchen tables. Whether in the meat, vegetables or fish industry, the stakes could be very high.

While the UK left the EU 11 months ago, its trade relations with the bloc have remained the same all throughout 2020. The country stayed as a full member of the internal market and customs union to give both sides enough time to agree on a new trade deal.

If an agreement is not reached, however, the UK could end up trading with the EU under basic rules set by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

This means, for example, that charges would be introduced on many imports and exports. Alas, it would also entail bans on certain food exports due to EU safety rules.

The florid Scottish potato industry is on the menu. It accounts for the 75% of the UK’s potato production and is among the biggest exporters for the world manufacture of chips and crisps. Under strict EU-wide health checks, however, seed potatoes from third countries are banned from entering the single market. This would add extra domestic tensions with tangible economic fallouts with the Scottish nationalists, who have already voiced claims for a second independence referendum.

Potato field in Scotland


Meat could meet a similar fate. Fresh or chilled meat products, such as sausages, coming from outside the EU are restricted under EU legislation, unless otherwise provided. In this case, in a last ditch attempt at overturning the negotiating table, the UK has said it would apply reciprocal restrictions on the same products moving to Great Britain.

The UK has been a net food importer for almost two centuries: a no-deal scenario resulting in diverging sets of rules would have a disruptive impact on its food security and food supply chain.

It would also hugely impact some of the country’s main suppliers from continental Europe, including Germany and Italy. According to sector representatives, EU27 food and drink exports to the UK account for 33 billion euros.

The fishing issue, however, is more a cause than an effect of the current political climate – going beyond the alignment of the UK regulation with EU standards. It is about granting EU trawlers the right to fish in UK waters – something they have been doing for decades under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), with predetermined catch quotas distributed among member states. Adopted at the beginning of the 1970s, when the UK joined the bloc together with fellow sea powers like Denmark and Ireland, the CFP aims at pooling the member states’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). EEZs extend 200 nautical miles from the baseline: Each coastal country enjoys sovereign rights over this area. The CFP also has overarching priorities such as preventing overfishing and protecting marine biodiversity.

Fishing is an emotional issue on both sides of the Channel and touches upon one the questions of (perceived) sovereignty at the heart of the British referendum in 2016. At the time, one of the key pro-Brexit campaigners, then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage, took the Thames leading a fleet, with inflaming nostalgic rhetoric about “the return of our fishing waters to our sovereign control” for the benefit of our “coastal communities”. Economically speaking, however, the fishing industry accounts for only 0.1% of the UK’s GDP. This distorted perception helped frame the British fishing waters as a non-negotiable dossier in the talks with the EU counterparts – giving it more attention, for example, than comparatively more lucrative sectors such as insurance.

On the European shore, France is the player to watch. British waters are a crucial asset for French fleets, where they fish around 25% of their national catch. Brittany and Normandy’s fishermen and women are not going to pay the Brexit bill, President Emmanuel Macron stated, noting possible turbulent political consequences for his run for a second term at the Élysée Palace in 2022. Other coastal countries are worried about consequences as well, including Belgium, which has even revived a 1666 Charter that grants 50 Flemish fishers from Bruges “eternal rights” to English fishing waters.

“We have got to be able to control our waters,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab keeps saying, echoing eternal Brexit propaganda. At the same time, he acknowledged that a sudden change to the amount of fish EU member countries can catch in British waters would be unfair; hence a proposed glide path under which British quotas would gradually expand at the expense of those of continental nations. The two sides are still far apart: while the EU seems keen to agree on slightly less than a 20% cut, the British counterpart asks for up to 80% of the fishing rights, according to reports.

Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the North Atlantic


The UK, however, would benefit only virtually from re-extended exclusive sovereignty on its EEZ. On the one hand, the some 6,000 British vessels would hardly be able to exploit all the new fishing opportunities in the Atlantic. On the other, the trade chapter kicks back in.

More than two thirds of the British fish, including farmed fish, is exported to EU countries. Without an agreement, the British fishing sector would lose access to continental markets, a more harming perspective than sharing UK waters with fellow European fishermen and women.

While at first sight the UK seems to have the upper hand on the fishing chapter, the EU will keep negotiating on the future deal as a whole, leveraging on the benefits of being part of the single market, without allowing sectorial departures. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” has been the mantra during Brexit talks – and so it goes also for a future trade deal that could still benefit both sides, and minimize risks for Europe’s economy.

The clock is ticking. This time, Britannia has to rule choppy waves.