Fisheries: One MP talks sense as battle over quotas continues

A week ago today, the subject of fisheries was raised by Craig Mackinley, the Conservative MP for Thanet South, in the debate over the European Union (withdrawal) Bill.

The relevant part of his speech, taken from Hansard, was as follows:-

“I support it {The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill} completely for legislation that is applicable only to the United Kingdom, but when dealing with legislation that involves relationships outside the United Kingdom, such as the common fisheries policy, I have a few concerns, because the body of legislation—the acquis—that is the CFP is made up almost entirely of regulations. The only way we can achieve compatibility is through a legally binding withdrawal agreement, and that in itself brings some problems. First, at this stage, we do not know what that agreement will contain. Indeed, we do not even know if we will be getting an agreement at all, such has been the appalling behaviour, sadly, of our EU partners.

Secondly, taking the common fisheries policy as an example, article 50 takes us out cleanly, so there is no possibility of future legal challenges that we would have to try to avoid. Regulation 1380/2013, which will be brought across by the Bill, will re-establish the common fisheries policy in all but name, possibly paving the way for a legal challenge, perhaps via the Vienna convention on international treaties, through the withdrawal agreement. The evidence of that is the acquis that we have accepted and transposed into UK law, thereby creating a continuation of rights thereon.

I would like to see the proposed fisheries Bill, which is due before us at some stage, and which could solve the problem. We have no idea what that Bill will contain. Will it continue to give away the nation’s wealth that is its fish? Will it continue the disastrous CFP policy of quota allocation, which puts the resource in the hands of a few, and is the cause of the completely immoral discarding of prime fish that we have seen all these years? We simply do not know. Why are we going down this tortuous route when the easiest route would be to exempt the entire fisheries acquis from the withdrawal Bill, and produce a fisheries Bill, coming into force on 30 March 2019, that confirmed what international law bestows on this nation? That is not unusual, because the withdrawal Bill already exempts parts of the charter of fundamental rights.

Fishing is the area in which the British people demand a clean Brexit, and I think they will accept nothing less. Fishing must not be used as part of a trade-off, and availability must not form part of a deal elsewhere. Control of our exclusive economic zone extending to 200 nautical miles or the median line will regenerate our coastal communities, but if we follow current fisheries policy, we will certainly fail to do that. It is quite odd that we commit vast amounts of cash to communities such as mine in Ramsgate, Broadstairs and parts of Margate through the coastal communities fund—I am thankful that we do—but we seem to have no clear commitment to the one thing that could provide great rejuvenation for our coastal communities, which are recognised as having lower rates of employment, and which are in need of restructuring and infrastructure.

On this subject, the electorate are very wary of shenanigans. We cannot afford to create failure, and it is our responsibility to make this a success. I am happy to trust the Government by supporting Second Reading tonight, but I would very much like to hear more about their proposals for restoring one of this nation’s finest treasures—our very positive fishing grounds, which have the potential to benefit our communities and should never have been taken away.”

It is encouraging that at least one MP has spoken so clearly about the key issues as far as fisheries are concerned.  There is much vested interest, particularly among those who have bought quota, to keep the status quo. This, as Mr Mackinley rightly points out, will do no good whatsoever to our coastal communities and especially the smaller family-owned fishing boats which may struggle to survive 2018 if the new discards ban is enforced.

 

Hopefully it’s confusion rather than betrayal

Michael Gove’s comments to Danish fishermen about access to UK waters after Brexit have attracted some adverse criticism. We have not been provided with a full record of his actual words and it is quite likely he has been misquoted. Furthermore, he has only been in the job a few weeks and there is a lot of detail for him to take on board.

The same cannot be said for the Civil Servants of DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who should know better, A statement by one of their spokesman is therefore far more of a cause for concern than Mr Gove’s comments in Denmark. The spokesman said:-

“Leaving the EU means we will take back control of our territorial waters. As we have always said, other countries will be able to access our waters – but for the first time in 50 years it will be on our terms and under our control…..We will allocate quotas on the basis of what is scientifically sustainable, making sure we have a healthy marine environment and profitable fishing industry in the UK.”

The fishing industry has always been concerned that the Government will only allow British vessels the exclusive use of the 12 nautical mile zone – in other words, out territorial waters. This is  what the DEFRA statement has indicated and the recent the Conservative manifesto said the same thing. Taking the DEFRA statement at face value, it would appear that arrangements regarding our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) covering the area from 12 nautical miles up to 200 nautical miles/median line will continue as at present. This means that EU vessels will continue to take around 59% of the British people’s resource and the failed quota system will continue. Is this really what Mr Gove has in mind?

So why did the department use the word “Territorial”?

This is where confusion is creeping in. This doesn’t apply just to fishing but right across the whole range of Brexit-related issues. The public is stating to get restless and are wondering whether those at the top know what they are doing or else fear that they are deceiving us again. This is unhealthy, and proves once again the importance of detail.

Consequentially, Gove, probably for no fault of his own, will be under pressure now not only to explain his own comments but also the actions of his department. The burden on Gove’s shoulders cannot be exaggerated. The survival of the Government  – and indeed, the Conservative party – could rest in his hands. If the EEZ is traded away, then Brexit isn’t Brexit. DEFRA may state, “it will be on our terms and under our control”, but if the existing quota system of the CFP is used, the expected benefits will not materialise. Life after Brexit has to be a success for our fishing industry, not a continuation of the present story of decline.

The confusion stems directly from the DEFRA statement – “As we have always said, other countries will be able to access our water”. There is nothing wrong with these words as all free and independent fishing nations have reciprocal arrangements with their neighbours. Under international Law, UNCLOS3 article 62(2) states that if you haven’t the fishing capacity to take the resource, the amount you can’t catch can be given to your neighbours. The problem here is the civil servants will have advised Gove that we haven’t the capacity, whereas in reality we have.

The confusion centres around this word “Territorial.” UNCLOS3 has different rules for the territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from the coastline and the Exclusive Economic Zone reaching out to 200 nautical miles/median line zone.

No one is saying that we should throw all EU vessels out on 30th March 2019, but no permanent rights must be given, only temporary transitional rights on a declining annual basis. What is vital, however, is that we need to know whether DEFRA is making the common mistake of using the term “Territorial waters”  when it actually means EEZ or whether it really does mean that we will only control the 12 nautical mile limit.

If so, it would be a shameful betrayal of our fishermen on a par with Fisheries Minister Peter Walker, who told Parliament in January 1983 – “the reality is that if the UK, instead of demanding anything like the historic proportions of Europe’s fish that it had caught, demanded a 200 mile limit and 50% or 60 % of Europe’s fish, that would mean the destruction of the fishing industries of most of our friends and partners in western Europe”.

Unfortunately the attitude that fishermen in other countries come before our own still prevails in some quarters. Thankfully, in Michael Gove, we have a person who has hit the deck running and is prepared to listen and learn. He has already shown in denouncing the London Convention  that he is someone who can and will take action. Ultimately, it is the job of civil servants to implement, not decide policy, so we can but hope that when Mr Gove really has his feet under the table that there will be a change of tone from DEFRA.

The way his Danish visit has been reported in the press will also underline to him how important it is for his department to issue clear, unambiguous statements, leaving no room for confusion over a very delicate subject.

Who will blink first?

Our attention has been drawn to an interesting article which appeared on the Conservative Home website. The author, James Arnell, claims that we in the UK have a different mindset when it comes to negotiations. “In the UK”, he claims, “parties generally start from a position which is more or less reasonable on each side and move together to a deal relatively quickly, seeking to avoid unnecessary escalation up the chain of command.”

The Continental approach is very different:- “Negotiations generally start with almost ridiculously extreme positions on each side….It is not at all unusual for these steps….to be accompanied by walkouts, requiring bosses to get things ‘back on track’. Ultimately, this continental form of negotiation culminates in a relatively rapid final phase of negotiations between the ‘head honchos’, in which, after months or years of painful posturing on both sides, points are traded embarrassingly quickly and a deal is sealed.”

Mr Arnell says that we should really start worrying if the negotiations are going smoothly at this stage as it means that the UK side would have been giving too much away.

The author works for Charterhouse, a private equity firm.  His biographical page on that firm’s website states that he is a barrister who speaks French and German fluently. All things considered, this article on ConHome sounds like it has been written by someone with first-hand experience of the Continental mindset with which David Davis and his team are having to deal during the Brexit negotiations. Maybe this is why not a lot is being given away by the UK government. While such tactics may ultimately turn out to be the best way of getting a favourable deal with the EU, as we have pointed out the lack of the details of any Brexit masterplan is causing concern for a number of business figures who are keen to know in far more detail what the government’s exit plans actually are.

A little extra piece of detail did emerge yesterday morning. According to Open Europe, Theresa May was adamant that even any transitional deal would not involve membership of the Single Market.  “We said we would no longer be members of the single market because we will no longer be members of the European Union.,” she said. Fair enough, but if there is another plan, not only organisations such as the Campaign for an Independent Britain but more importantly, some big names in the business world are straining at the leash for some reassurance.

Some confirmation of Mr Arnell’s analysis of the Continental mindset has surfaced in the shape of a  reference document of the Workshop on “Common Fisheries Policy and BREXIT” held on 21th June 2017, by the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries.  Concern has already been voiced about our denunciation of the 1964 London Fisheries Convention, an agreement which pre-dated our joining the EU allowing limited access to vessels from other Western European nations to certain areas of the waters between 6 and 12 nautical miles from our coastline.

As the wording of the original document was vessel-specific and no boats permitted to access our waters in 1964 are likely still to be active, denouncing this Convention could turn out to have been little more than a precautionary measure. The message it conveyed, however, was that the UK is serious about regaining control of all of our waters right up to the 200 nautical mile/median point limit and it was not well received. The response of Geert Bourgeois, the Flemish Prime Minister, was to wave around an ancient charter signed by Charles II in 1666 allowing fifty herring boats from Bruges “eternal rights” to fish in UK waters.  A bit of research showed this action to be nothing more than sabre-rattling. Even nearby Zeebrugge, a far more important fishing port than Bruges these days, could only muster 43 fishing boats in total four years ago.

So it comes as no surprise that the European Parliament is keen to see EU boats continue to plunder our waters. Although trade and fisheries will be handled separately, the report says, “The fact that these issues will be negotiated in separate legal frameworks should not lead to the fragmentation of fisheries issues, which should be addressed in their entirety and together, so as to ensure that the free movement of fishery products is linked to free access to waters and resources and vice versa”. As John Ashworth of Fishing for Leave commented, “The EU will want to tie the whole package together using blackmail on trade” –  In other words,  let us fish in your waters more or less as before or we’ll make it hard for you to sell fisheries products in the EU.

John has studied the issue of historic rights and has concluded that we can take back control of our waters without being open to a legal challenge over this issue. Nonetheless, the European Parliament document says “These historical fishing rights should be taken into account in the negotiations to facilitate preferential access by Member State fleets.” I shan’t repeat his rather forthright comments about this for fear of offending anyone’s sensitivity, but suffice it to say that he is distinctly unimpressed with the reasoning of the European Parliament! As an aside, it is worth pointing out that the European Parliament has a relatively minor role to play in the Brexit process, but its attitude is unlikely to be different from that of other EU institutions.

The bottom line is that if there is no agreement on fishing, the EU will be the clear loser. We would have full control of our waters right up to the 200 nautical mile/median point on Brexit day and no EU vessel would be able to fish anywhere within it. The loss of access to EU waters by our fishermen would be more than compensated by having exclusive access to our own.

This, or course, assumes that Michael Gove does not blink first and give way. The denunciation of the 1964 Convention was a move in the right direction, but the howls of protest from across the Channel are a warning to him that he will need to hold his nerve.

Indeed, it may not just be Mr Gove who needs to take James Arnell’s advice on board. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister has written a book called Adults in the Room based on his personal experience of how awkward he found EU officials to be.  On the other hand, while we have the upper hand on fisheries, we certainly don’t when it comes to other important areas of trade. Our negotiators must hold their nerve and not be intimidated, but they know that the mantra “no deal is better than a bad deal” is no more rooted in reality than the prospect of fifty 350-year old herring boats from Bruges suddenly appearing in the Channel demanding their eternal rights to fish in our waters.

Photo by waltercolor

Danger – Handle with care

When the current Parliamentary session ends on July 20th, we will enter what has long been  called “the Silly Season” when newspapers dredge up all sorts of far-fetched stories to try to keep readers’ interest.

It seems that some are already getting into practise, particularly those who specialise in “biff-bam” Brexit stories,  many of which have a only very tenuous relationship with fact. Among the e-mails greeting me this morning were several communications from concerned leave supporters who had spotted seemingly worrying articles in the press over the weekend.

Two articles in particular were the focus of concern. The first concerns an ancient charter granted by Charles II in 1666 allowing 50 fishermen from Bruges “eternal rights” to fish in English waters as an act of gratitude for the hospitality given him by the city during the 1650s when he lived in exile.  The headline is much more lurid, however:- “Belgium says 1666 royal charter grants its fishermen “eternal rights” to English waters.” Not quite the same as 50 fishing boats from one Belgian city! Let’s unpack things a little more.

Firstly, a discussion my colleague John Ashworth of Fishing for Leave revealed that we technically have similar fishing rights off the Newfoundland Coast going back even further – to the period shortly after its discovery by John Cabot in 1497. Have we sought to upset the Canadians by exercising them at any time in the last hundred years? Almost certainly not. Furthermore, in 1666, Belgium did not exist as a country, being part of the Spanish Netherlands. Then, what is meant by “English Waters”? In the 17th Century, by convention, this meant only the sea within three nautical miles of the shoreline. Things have changed significantly since then, with territorial waters being expanded during the 20th century. Any attempts therefore by fishermen from Bruges to fish within three miles of the English coast after Brexit on the basis of this charter would open a legal Pandora’s box.

But are there actually any vessels that would be entitled to do so? The charter mentions “Fifty herring boats.” The historic town of Bruges, which in its heyday saw considerable maritime traffic along the  canals linking it to the North Sea, is no longer a major port. The fishing industry in that part of Belgium is centred on nearby Zeebrugge (literally “Bruges-on-Sea”) which is, in fact, the largest fishing port in the country, with a substantial fish market in the town. Yet in 2013, it only boasted 43 fishing boats in total. Given that Bruges lies on a canal 8 miles (or 12,87 kilometres) inland from Zeebrugge and its fish market, the likelihood of there being any fishing boats (let alone specialist herring boats) based in the part of the city which existed in 1666 is almost certainly zero.

In other words, when the Flemish prime minister Geert Bourgeois unrolled a copy of the charter on a Belgian television news show, it was a piece of grandstanding and nothing more.  It does, however, indicate just how much grandstanding we are likely to face as the Brexit negotiations get under way. Belgium, along with other EU member states who fish in the North Sea, has been upset by the decision by Michael Gove to denounce the 1964 London Fisheries Convention. Even this, however, is a considerable over-reaction. The wording of this agreement is vessel-specific and therefore was unlikely ever to have been put to the test as none of the boats specified are likely to be in commercial use 53 years later. In other words, Mr Gove’s action was merely a precautionary measure to avoid possible complications.

It’s not only politicians on the other side of the channel who are grandstanding.  I also received a couple of e-mails about an article claiming that Vince Cable reckons that Brexit will never happen. Once again, let us examine the facts. The Lib Dems campaigned in the recent General Election to be the so-called “party of the 48%”. They went up from 9 MPs to 12 only courtesy of the SNP slump in Scotland, so it can hardly be said that their campaign was a success, but hope springs eternal!

Cable is wrong because of the dynamics of the two main parties. The Tories did unexpectedly badly and are licking their wounds. The majority of Tory MPs campaigned for Remain but most Tory activists and a significant minority of MPs are solidly pro-Brexit, so to backpedal would be suicide, provoking the worst crisis in the Conservative Party since 1846. (See more on this here – principally the last three paragraphs.)

But Corbyn has been strengthened by the election result, even though he didn’t win. As a consequence, he is revealing his true Brexiteer colours. He and his right hand man John McDonnell have never been keen on the EU but when he won the Labour leadership campaign, he initially faced immense opposition from the majority of Labour MPs, who didn’t want him as their leader. He was thus unable to take an anti-EU stance publicly. This has now changed as Corbyn was quite smart in the election campaign, pitching to floating Brexit supporters who were either moving on from UKIP or who didn’t like the Tories. Now his own position is strengthened, he is coming out increasingly strongly for Brexit. This in turn adds further pressure on the Tories not to backpedal.

None of this is to ignore the complexities of Brexit but the Lib Dems are now no more than little pygmies shouting from the sidelines. The media may feel obliged to report the words of the man likely to be the next leader of the UK’s third party, but no one need take much notice of his wishful thinking. We are basically into a period of two-party politics. It may not last for long, but at the moment, neither Mrs May nor Jeremy Corbyn show any signs of trying to stop Brexit and no other party leader’s opinions matter very much.

I hope that this debunking of two articles will help reassure concerned readers. Politicians remain the least trusted profession in the UK, but journalists run them pretty close, being even less trusted than bankers, estate agents and trade union officials. There are some exceptions and we are thankful to those members of the media who do seek to maintain high standards and report facts accurately, especially when it comes to Brexit. Based on what I found in my e-mail in tray this morning, however, all too many journalists are guilty of sloppy reporting, poor research and sensationalism. Their offerings, especially lurid headlines in the forthcoming “Silly Season”, need to be handled with extreme care.

 

A present from CIB to our MPs

Like all campaign organisations, things changed significantly for the Campaign for an Independent Britain after 23rd June last year. Our target up to this point had been the general public. We produced pamphlets and leaflets aimed at ordinary people which set out the case for independence.

Since the vote to leave the EU, it is our MPs who need to be targeted – to ensure that they deliver the best Brexit deal possible. Obviously, lengthy face-to-face meetings with individual Ministers and Civil Servants is a task for specialists with detailed knowledge of their  particular area, but there is still a place for easy-to-read literature which explains the essentials of a given Brexit topic.

So last week, all MPs were sent a copy of our recent fisheries booklet Seizing the Moment. Written by John Ashworth of Fishing for Leave, it sets out the options for the UK fishing industry after Brexit, explaining which, in the author’s widely-respected opinion, is the best way forward.

The booklet was accompanied by a covering letter written by Rev Philip foster, one of our vice- chairmen, which reads as follows:-

Dear MP,
NEW BRITISH FISHERIES POLICY
When Britain was negotiating to join the EEC, just before completion, they sprang the demand that our waters should become “a common resource” for all EEC states to share. P.M. Edward Heath caved in and
misled Parliament, claiming that he had provided safeguards for British fishermen. The result has been an ecological disaster for our unique marine resource and economic disaster for our decimated fishing
communities.
    The government, in “repatriating” fishing policy, must not just transfer the existing regime to the British statute book, allowing the environmental catastrophe of the unworkable Common Fisheries Policy quota regime to continue.
WHAT IS OURS?
�  Our territorial waters up to 12 miles from the coast.
  Under the London Fishery Convention of 1964 the UK gave fishing rights to France and four other
  countries within our 6-12 mile territorial limit. This can be renounced by giving two years notice. The government has announced it will do this; an excellent start.
�  Our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which stretches for 200 miles from our coast or to the median line when neighbouring countries are nearer than 400 miles from us.
All living marine species within this zone belong to us. (Fishery Limits Act 1976).     Control should be asserted as soon as we leave the EU and no permanent fishing rights should be accorded to any foreign vessels.
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
The notorious CFP EU quota system, which causes massive amounts of fish to be thrown back dead into the sea, should be scrapped. It has built-in incentives to cheat. Our expert friends in ‘Fishing for Leave’ have studied fishery management systems worldwide and believe that the control of days at sea by trawlers (as used in the Faeroe Islands) is far more practicable. Combined with local ecological controls for the very different fishing grounds in our waters, it can easily be policed with satellite assistance.
  Fishing rights should not be sold as individual property but remain under public control, inalienably for the nation.
    The enclosed booklet is a readable, non-technical distillation of a lifetime’s fishery experience by the author, John Ashworth; more are available on request.
  As Parliament is the steward of this great natural resource, we hope you will find it useful in urging a truly British policy on the government.

 

A small step – the denunciation of the 1964 Fisheries Convention at last!

Within a week of taking up his new post as Secretary of State Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has finally denounced the London 1964 Fisheries Convention. This is a small and welcome step towards Brexit, but one which should have been done at the same time as Article 50, as both require two years’ notice of termination. It means that unless we get a time extension to the Article 50 process, there will be a 3-month overlap.

The 1964 Convention was an agreement between the UK and some other European countries about fishing rights in each other’s waters. It was disadvantageous to UK fishermen and very beneficial to the French, possibly as a sop to General de Gaulle, who was not at all keen to see us join the European Community, with which we were currently in negotiations with at the time.

There are some grounds for saying it may make little difference as the Convention is vessel-specific and very few, if any, boats mentioned in the 1964 agreement are likely to be commercially active.

Of course, our membership of the EU has superseded it. Michel Barnier tweeted yesterday:-

UK denunciation of London Convention=no change: EU law/Common Fisheries Policy had superseded it. EU 27 interests=my priority for negs

This is a very telling. In one sense, Barnier is correct, as the detail of the Convention was transferred into EU regulation. On Brexit day, however, the regulation ceases to apply, and we revert to previous domestic legislation which, if it had not been denounced today, would have continued the right of access to our 6 to 12 nautical mile limit.

Note again, “EU 27 interests=my priority for negs.” Given that France gained most from the 1964 Convention, in any negotiations for a post-Brexit fishing settlement, you can expect France to demand access rights to fish in UK waters.

So while today’s move has cleared the way for UK control of our waters up to 12 nautical miles from the coast, there is still the question of control of our seas between 12 and 200 nautical miles (or the median point where the sea is less than 400 nautical miles wide). The Great Repeal Bill will repeal the European Communities 1972 Act, but at the same time will repatriate EU law into UK law – in other words, EU legislation will still be on our statute books but will take its authority from Westminster and not Brussels. This means that while Article 50 would take us out of the Common Fisheries Policy, the Great Repeal Bill, unless it excludes fisheries, would more or less take us straight back in again.

The separate Fisheries Bill will counter that, as long as it takes effect at exactly the same time as, or before, the Great Repeal Bill. If there is any overlap, this will result in huge problems of continuity and legal challenges.

As the time ticks away towards 30th March 2019, ministers need to remember the Kent Kirk case. This Danish skipper deliberately fished in UK waters to test the situation when there were uncertainties following the termination of a fisheries agreement without anything being put in its place.

Once we reach the end of the Article 50 period in March 2019, all EU treaties and regulations will cease to apply to the UK, and we revert to our own UK legislation. It is vital to sort out a fisheries policy before then and the timetable is short. Under Article 50, unless there is unanimous agreement among the 27 members to extend the two year period, we have 21 months left to achieve a withdrawal agreement. When you consider all that needs to be done in such a short space of time, it raises the question as to whether this is possible.

The EU is in the driving seat when it comes to determining the terms of withdrawal. The UK can say yes or no and even then, the Council and the European Parliament have a vote. While the EU is obliged by treaty to conclude a deal, it could make life so difficult that the UK either has to submit or say no.

However, circumstances have dealt us a strong hand as far as fisheries is concerned. If there is no fisheries agreement, no EU vessel will be able to fish in our waters. Given the French fishing Industry needs access to UK waters to survive, it will be putting a lot of pressure on the EU’s negotiators to fight hard on its behalf. It is vital that our side does not give in. Gove has thrown down the gauntlet and even today’s action has ruffled a few feathers. He will need to steel himself for a far worse reaction if he is to see this through to the bitter end and reclaim full control out to the 200 nautical mile/median point limit.

(See also this press release from Fishing for Leave)