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.

Time to call MEPs’ bluff

 

Last week, an article in the Guardian painted a bleak picture of the prospects for the UK fishing industry after Brexit:- “The hopes of British fishermen that the UK can win its “waters back” after Brexit are expected to be dashed by the European parliament, despite the campaign promises of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, a leaked EU document reveals.

MEPs have drafted seven provisions to be included in Britain’s “exit agreement”, including the stipulation that there will be “no increase to the UK’s share of fishing opportunities for jointly fished stocks [maintaining the existing quota distribution in UK and EU waters]”.

The document, obtained by the Guardian, adds that in order for the UK and EU to keep to commitments on sustainable fishing – contained within the United Nations stocks agreement – “it is difficult to see any alternative to the continued application of the common fisheries policy”

It is time for those MEPs to read Article 50, which they as a Parliament, and each EU member state have twice endorsed. While it is correct that where you have two nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that adjoin one another you will have a straddling stock and the percentage share-out is agreed on the basis of the total allowable catch within each EEZ, it is totally wrong is to suggest to any degree that the share allocated to the British EEZ has to be shared out between the EU and the UK as at present.

Section 3 of Article 50 states “The treaties shall cease to apply to the state in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement, or failing that, two years after the notification Or failing that, if there is no agreement,  the treaties – including regulations – shall cease to apply two years after notice has been given.”

Going back to section 2 of Article 50, it says  “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with the state”. It does not say that the leaving Nation has to negotiate.

Of course the MEPs are going to try it on. They don’t want to lose out taking a British resource for free, as they have been doing for over 40 years. Taking the phrase “the Union shall negotiate”, they want things to remain as they are  – in other words, as far as the UK is concerned, a shadow CFP. However, the main straddling stocks are located in the North Sea and English Channel, where our EEZ in that area is larger than the EU one. This implies that the EU should follow our policy, not that we should follow theirs – i. e, maintain the CFP.

The MEPs stress that we must abide by International law – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS3).  Actually, we would agree with this as sections 55 to 75 clearly lay out the guidelines for operating an EEZ. At one second past the two-year period stipulated under Article 50, competency and control reverts to Westminster. We return to the Fishery Limits 1976 Act and its amendments, which accepts the guidelines of UNCLOS3. This states that the marine resources within the British EEZ belongs to the British people. The EU and its MEPs in particular have no say in the management of our own EEZ post-Brexit.

To repeat, international law bestows the responsibility of the British EEZ of 200 nautical mile/median line zone solely onto the UK Government.

In order to prevent an overnight collapse of EU fleets by excluding them totally from day one from our waters, under UNCLOS3 Section 62,  we can make a generous offer in the negotiations. We could allow EU vessels a limited right to fish in UK waters on a decreasing transitional basis – to fish the overcapacity of our resource until we build up our own fleet.

So whatever the Guardian‘s source may say, while the MEPs can huff and puff as much as they wish, there is nothing they can do about it. The only way they can achieve their desire would be if a weak UK government capitulates and creates a British fishing policy based on the CFP for the British EEZ. In other words, giving the EU what they want and repeating Edward Heath’s betrayal of our fishermen. They must not cave in to pressure and deny our coastal communities this lifeline after over four decades of EU-instigated decline