Brexit and Britain’s Fisheries

This article looks at Brexit and its impact on the control and management of the UK’s fisheries. Events up to the date of the UK leaving the EU on the 31st January 2020 are covered. This article will continue to be updated as further news emerges.

The 2015 Conservative Party manifesto promised an in/out referendum on EU membership. With the Conservatives winning a majority in the House of Commons in that election legislation was passed to allow the referendum to take place on the 23rd June 2016. It had been widely expected that the vote would go in favour of the UK remaining a member of the EU, but in the end the UK voted to leave the EU. This sparked a period of political turmoil which saw David Cameron resign as Prime Minister and another two general elections take place in the next three and a half years.

Britain leaving the EU – a process which soon became known Brexit (a portmanteau of the words British and Exit) – will lead to major and on-going changes in trade, immigration, empoyment, laws and regulations, justice, and legislation across a huge number of sectors of British society which are intertwined with the EU. However, it is also set to have a significant impact on the way the fish stocks within Britain’s territorial waters are controlled, managed an exploited.

The Common Fisheries Policy and Britain’s Membership of the EEC/EU

Britain, as a member of the European Union, is signed up to the Common Fisheries Policy. This is an agreement whereby EU nations do not control their own territorial waters or set their own quotas to catch fish. Instead, fish are classed as a common resource and the rules governing fishing quotas, catch levels, subsidies, discards and a whole range of other measures is set centrally by the European Commission (the branch of the European Union which proposes legislation and carries out the day-to-day business of the EU). Although the individual member states of the EU are still responsible for policing their waters and enforcing the regulations, all EU countries with a coastline and a fishing industry share their territorial waters (which are called the Exclusive Economic Zone) with each other, and all have the right to fish in each other’s waters, with the EU setting the catch levels for each country in each specific area.

EU and UK

In June 2016 the UK voted to leave the EU.

Before joining the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1973 (which became the European Union in the early 1990s) Britain – like most other countries in the world – controlled its own fishing waters. This was a zone extending 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline (or the median point if another country is closer than that distance), an area known as a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. With EEC membership Britain would control a zone just twelve miles from the UK coastline, with the rest of Britain’s waters now part of Europe’s combined Exclusive Economic Zone and controlled by the EEC.

British Prime Minister Edward Heath had negotiated Britain’s bid to join the EEC and many in the fishing industry had believed that some kind of special deal would be cut to allow Britain to maintain some control over its fishing waters. This did not happen, despite ministers claiming that it would, leaving many fishermen feeling hugely resentful that they then had to share the fish stocks in UK territorial waters with the fishing industries of many other EU countries, for no apparent benefit to themselves.

A separate piece of legislation known as the London Fisheries Convention (so called as it was signed in London) was ratified in 1964. This gave the countries which signed it, including the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Netherlands, Portugal and several others the right to fish in the zone between six and twelve miles from each other’s coastlines. Many of the regulations of the London Fisheries Convention were superseded by the Common Fisheries Policy, although the convention is still in effect.

EU Englargement

Animation showing the enlargement of the EEC/EU, beginning with signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and ending with the UK leaving in 2020 (© Kolja21).

This system has been in place ever since. Supporters of EU membership point out that British fishermen can fish elsewhere in EU waters, but the reality is that Britain has – or at least should have – some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe meaning there is huge demand for EU vessels to access Britain’s territorial waters, but limited value in British fishermen catching fish elsewhere in the EU. The statistics bear this out. In 2015, EU vessels caught 683,000 tonnes (raising £484 in million revenue) in UK waters, but UK vessels caught only 111,000 tonnes (£114 million revenue) in EU Member States’ waters.

Chart showing how the British EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) is the largest of all of the fishing nations in Europe. The secondary graphic shows how a large proportion of EU nations catch comes from UK waters, while only a small proportion of UK catch comes from EU waters.

The way quotas are set centrally by the EU is also seen as being hugely unfair on British fishermen, as they can often end up getting only a tiny proportion of the catch within their own waters, as the following statistics show:

There are many other criticisms levelled at the Common Fisheries Policy. These  include high levels of discarded fish being allowed, dubious deals to allow European factory trawlers to fish in the waters of impoverished African nations such as Mauritania and huge subsidies paid out to allow highly environmentally damaging deep-sea trawling to continue (even though it only employs a tiny number of people and would run at a huge financial loss without these subsidies). These are all covered in our main article on the Common Fisheries Policy which can be viewed by clicking here.

Fishing in the EU Referendum Campaign

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage helped put fishing at the centre of the referendum.

Commercial fishing is, in fact, a very small part of the UK economy. Out of a workforce of approximately 30 million people [as of 2018] commercial fishing directly employs around 12,000 people in the UK [Source: Marine Socio-Economics Project, New Economics Foundation, May 2014], although like all industries there are further people employed in the wider supply and support sectors. Indeed, a 2020 article in the Spectator stated that the British commercial fishing industry accounts for around 0.1% of the UK economy, putting it roughly on par with the trade in leather goods or the manufacture of sewing machines.

Despite this, commercial fishing is often seen as massively important to coastal communities around the UK, even if economically it has been overtaken by other industries. The way the UK no longer controls its own territorial waters can be seen as exemplifying the way in which EU membership has led to Britain losing control over an industry which once provided plentiful jobs and employment, and one in which foreign fishing fleets are often seen as benefiting at Britain’s expense. For these reasons, fishing has a social  and political significance and media profile which is much higher than its economic importance would suggest.

Fishing had a high-profile role in the build up to the referendum with the overwhelming majority of the UK’s commercial fishing industry favouring leaving the EU in order to also leave the Common Fisheries Policy and put the control of Britain’s fishing ground back in the hands of the UK. A number of fishing pressure groups emerged to back Brexit, such as Fishing for Leave. Prominent leave campaigners such as Boris Johnson criticised the Common Fisheries Policy, calling it “crazy”, leading to the Prime Minister David Cameron defending the policy and claiming that the value of the UK’s fish catching and processing industry had “gone up” during his time in power. The issue of fishing was also thrust into the public consciousness days before the referendum when a pro-leave flotilla of fishing boats, organised by Fishing for Leave and supported by UKIP leader Nigel Farage (who was on board) travelled along the Thames and past parliament to campaign for Brexit and the return of Britain’s fishing grounds. This was met by a rival flotilla of remain supporters led by multi-millionaire singer Bob Geldof. The remain supporters played the song The In Crowd by Dobie Gray, while some of the boats from the pro-leave flotilla used their hoses to soak the remain boats. Eventually the police arrived to keep the two groups apart, although there were no reports of serious trouble or safety issues.

The EU Referendum Result

EU Referendum Result

The map on the left shows leave voting constituencies (blue) and remain voting (yellow), with further information on the vote to the right.

The referendum result was confirmed in the early hours of 17th June 2016 with 51.9% voting to leave and 48.1% remain, meaning that Britain would begin the process of leaving the European Union. While many areas such as London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, Wales and much of England outside of London and major metropolitan areas voted to leave. Areas which traditionally had a large fishing industry, such as Hull and Grimsby had some of the highest proportion of leave votes in the country.

The result of the referendum led to the Prime Minister David Cameron, who had strongly backed remain, announcing his resignation within hours of the result being confirmed and a period of political turmoil began. While questions would be asked about how the leave vote would affect many aspects of Britain’s economy, laws, immigration system, international trade and so on, the issue of how fishing would be affected remained high up the agenda. Nigel Farage stated that the way the UK deals with its fisheries would be the “acid test” for the whole of Brexit, with many within the fishing industry fearing that the UK’s fisheries would again be used as a bargaining chip by the government with EU access to Britain’s waters traded away for a favourable deal on trade, exports, finance or access to EU markets.

Brexit and Britain’s Fisheries Timeline

2016: May becomes Prime Minister and Hard and Soft Brexit

After David Cameron announced that he would resign as Prime Minister the Conservative party began a leadership election which Theresa May won and became leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister in July 2016. In December 2016 the MPs in the House of Commons voted by 461 to 89 in favour of triggering Article 50 (the formal process of leaving the European Union) which would start the two year countdown to the United Kingdom leaving the EU by the 29th March 2019. During this period Britain would remain a member of the European Union and continue to be signed up to all EU legislation and rules (including the Common Fisheries Policy).

London Pro EU March

A pro-EU march taking place in London in 2016.

During the second half of 2016 the terms ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’ started to be used in the media as the debate began about Britain’s future relationship with the EU began. A hard Brexit can be understood as Britain leaving the European Union and with it all of the EU institutions such as the European Single Market, Customs Union and no longer having to accept the freedom of movement of people. A soft Brexit would mean Britain leaving the EU but staying a member of these institutions, possibly through being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) – an agreement which allows non-EU countries to access the Single Market in return for accepting the majority of EU rules and regulations. While EEA membership would generally be seen as a form of soft Brexit countries such as Iceland and Norway which are not members of the EU but are members of the EEA still control their own fishing grounds as control over territorial waters is not part of EEA membership. Indeed, Iceland and Norway are the only two European nations which have plentiful fish stocks, and both countries have cited losing control of their fisheries as a key reason for not pursuing full membership of the European Union but continuing with EEA membership.

2017: Article 50 and General Election

Theresa May

Theresa May called a general election in 2017.

Under the leadership of Theresa May the Conservative Party was set to lead Britain towards something resembling a hard Brexit which involved leaving the European Single Market and Customs Union. The UK government said that they were confident that a mutually beneficial deal could be reached between the UK and the EU. Despite this many prominent cabinet ministers said that if a deal could not reached before the two year Article 50 time limit was up it would be better to leave on a no deal basis which would constitute an extremely hard Brexit. However, any deal which was reached between the UK government and the EU would have to be voted on by MPs in the House of Commons (the so-called “meaningful vote”). If this deal was rejected it was unclear if the UK would leave the EU on a no deal basis or a Brexit extension would have to be sought.

In April 2017 Theresa May called a General Election for the 8th June with the aim of increasing her party’s slender majority in the House of Commons and therefore giving the government a stronger mandate to negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU and make it easier to get Brexit legislation through the House of Commons. Despite having a 21-point lead over Labour in opinion polls at the start of the campaign, and some media outlets predicting a 150-seat conservative majority, a woeful campaign by Theresa May and the Conservative Party saw a resurgent Labour party close the gap on the Conservatives as the election approached. In the end the Conservative Party lost their majority in parliament, falling eight seats short of an overall majority, and had to form a confidence and supply agreement with the ten MPs of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to stay in power.

RIP Brexit

RIP Brexit: a protester demonstrates outside of the Houses of Parliament after the 2017 election, believing that the hung parliament result of the election would mean that a hard Brexit would no longer go ahead.

Despite this election result the Conservative Party progressed with their Brexit plans (it should be noted that the left-wing Labour Party also had a manifesto commitment in the 2017 election to leave the Single Market, a policy also associated with hard Brexit). In the Queen’s Speech which follows the election and sets out plans for the forthcoming parliament many of the Conservatives manifesto policies were dropped, but the party appeared to be proceeding with most of their plans for Brexit. In terms of fisheries the most pertinent news was that it was announced in the Fisheries Bill that the UK would proceed with plans to take back control of its own waters and set its own quotas for fisheries once the country had withdrawn from the European Union. This was welcomed by the commercial fishing community and strengthened when it was announced that the UK would also be withdrawing from the London Fisheries Convention, the legislation which allows foreign vessels to within the twelve-mile zone close to the UK shore which is still controlled by the British government.

Ruth Davidson

Ruth Davidson.

In Scotland (where the majority of the UK’s fishing industry is located) the issue of Brexit and how it would impact fisheries had a significant impact on the 2017 general election results. The Scottish National Party (SNP) had held fifty-six of the fifty-nine parliamentary seats in Scotland, but saw this fall to thirty-five in the 2017 election, with big names such as former leader Alex Salmond and the leader of the SNP in the House of Commons Angus Robertson, losing their seats. While Labour and the Liberal Democrats both increased their number of seats it was the Scottish Conservatives who were the biggest beneficiaries, going from a single seat to thirteen. Much of the Conservative success in Scotland was put down to their popular leader Ruth Davidson and the policy of leaving the EU and therefore the Common Fisheries Policy.

The importance of fishing to Scotland was underlined in the Brexit debates which had been taking place following the referendum result. After the June 2016 EU referendum the Scottish fishing industry had come out in favour of leaving the EU and the CFP, with the chief executive of the Scottish Fisheries Federation saying the decision was a “no brainer.” With the SNP’s strong support for maintaining EU membership meaning that Scotland would remain in the Common Fisheries Policy the SNP lost the support of many fishermen and people from fishing communities, with many of the seats the Scottish Conservatives won coming in the north east of Scotland – the heartlands of Scotland’s fishing industry. Some SNP politicians in constituencies which have a large fishing community, such as Eilidh Whiteford in Banff and Buchan, even signed a pledge before the election agreeing that Scotland should leave the CFP, despite the fact that this ran counter to her party’s steadfast commitment to EU (and therefore CFP) membership. In the election signing the pledge did not appear to help as the Conservatives overturned her majority of over 14,000 and won the seat. To try and win favour with the fishing industry the SNP were reduced to weakly arguing that Scotland could benefit from a reformed CFP.  In terms of fisheries their commitment to remain in the EU and Common Fisheries Policy appeared to have lost them large amounts of support in coastal communities.

As 2017 progressed many EU countries which were heavily reliant on their fisheries accessing UK territorial waters began to fight to maintain access to British waters after Brexit. Denmark said that they would fight Britain’s attempts to take back control of its own waters, claiming that they had a historical right to fish in British waters which goes back to the 1400s, and also claim that the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (which Britain and Denmark are both signed up to) says that nearby countries must respect the “traditional fishing rights” of each other. Similarly, the Dutch fishing industry has also (according to the Express) “pleaded” with the UK to be allowed to access British waters after Brexit, as more than half of the Dutch fishing industry’s total catch comes from within UK waters. The small Belgian fishing industry will also have major problems if Britain regains control of its waters as three quarters of their boats and half of their catch comes from UK waters.

Some sections of the European fishing industry were so dismayed at losing access to British fishing grounds that they have openly stated that they will ignore any attempts by the UK to take back control of its waters. Gerard van Balsfoort – the head of the European Fisheries Alliance which represents over 18,000 European fishermen – said in an interview with the BBC that his members would simply ignore any attempts by the UK to take back control of its own fishing grounds stating: “If our boats were suddenly barred from UK waters, we would just carry on fishing there regardless … We know that the Royal Navy is not able to patrol or control all your waters.”

Many questioned if Britain was able to monitor and defend its own waters post-Brexit. Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and government minister has said that the UK could become a “laughing stock” if there were not enough Royal Navy vessels to protect British waters after leaving the EU and the CFP, and accused the government of “amazing complacency” in its plans for protecting Britain’s fisheries after Brexit. Much of Lord West’s criticism was valid. The Royal Navy has suffered severe cuts since 2010 and the four River-class patrol vessels which make up the Fisheries Protection Squadron are often tasked with other duties – one of them, HMS Clyde, is permanently based in the Falkland Islands and in 2015 HMS Severn was sent on an eight month deployment in the Caribbean, rather than protecting UK fisheries.

HMS Severn

HMS Severn is one of the Royal Navy’s fisheries protection vessels, but is often used for other deployments.

The Guardian has pointed out that measures such as these have resulted in the number of boats boarded by fisheries protection vessels falling from 1400 in 2011-12 to just 278 in 2016-17. Lord Gardiner, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said in response to Lord West that Britain had a “robust enforcement system” for protecting its waters, pointing out that a new digital vessel monitoring system had been developed which allowed the UK to keep track of ships within its waters and five new River-class patrol boats were being built, although he did admit that fisheries protection would not be their only role.

Icelandic Ship Thor

Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Thor. Despite having a limited number of vessels and military assets Iceland is capable of protecting its own fisheries.

While it is easy to make the case that Britain will not be able to protect and patrol its own fishing grounds after leaving the EU, Lord West an others claiming that this is an impossible task may be overstating the case. As stated Iceland has full control of its own 200-mile fishing grounds as it is not a member of the European Union. However, Iceland has a tiny navy (which is actually classed as a coast guard) consisting of just three offshore patrol vessels, a very small hydrographic research vessel and a number of much smaller RHIBs (Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat). In addition they have three helicopters and a single fixed wing aircraft. If Iceland is capable of protecting its entire 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone with such limited naval resources then the UK – has the largest navy in the EU – is capable of doing the same.

Rather than fishing illegally in British waters many EU nations are arguing that if the UK wants to continue selling fish into the EU’s tariff-free Single Market then EU vessels will require continued access to British waters. This is an argument which representatives of the Danish fishing industry have repeatedly stated. On the World of Business programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in August 2017 Professor Richard Barnes, an internationally recognised expert in the law of the sea at the University of Hull, believe that the status quo of current CFP rules will be “maintained for the next five to ten years” due to the amount of time and resources the UK would have to spend to set up new rules, regulations and laws on quotas, and fishing rights. Another major issues is that of trade. The UK already exports large amounts of the fish caught in British waters to the EU, and imports much of the fish consumed domestically from countries which are not in the EU but are in the Single Market (such as Iceland and Norway). In this way UK and EU trade in fish is very closely linked leading to speculation that any UK-EU trade deal would have European fishing access to British fishing waters written into it. UK fishermen have responded by saying that they can simply sell the fish they catch outside of the EU if there is no longer a deal tariff-free to export British catches into the EU. Others have pointed out that both sides would benefit from a post-Brexit compromise deal which allows EU nations some access to British waters under a regulated licencing deal in return for British access to sell catches into the EU..

2018: Continued Brexit Negotiations

In late 2017 and agreement was reached for the UK to move onto the second phase of trade talks with the EU in 2018, prior to leaving the EU in March 2019. The UK was then set to enter a two year transitional phase between 2019 and 2021. During this phase the UK would not have legally been a member nation of the EU but will still observe all of the rules and regulations of the EU, including those of the Single Market and Customs Union. This received huge support from UK businesses who would see nothing change to their trade agreements with EU nations during this period, but it would have also meant the UK staying in the Common Fisheries Policy until at least 2021.

 Fishing Grimsby 1945

A picture of a fish auction at Grimsby in 1945. Traditional fishing areas of the UK voted in favour of leaving the EU due to the prospect of the UK taking back control of its own territorial waters.

As this two year transition period meant remaining in the Common Fisheries Policy the response from the UK’s fishing industry was ferocious, with many fearing that the UK would not actually end up leaving the CFP. Splits within the government emerged over post-Brexit fishing, with Tom Newton-Dunn, the Sun’s political editor, writing that Brexit-supporting Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the pro-EU Chancellor Phillip Hammond had clashed over fishing rights, with Hammond keen to allow EU nations to continue to fish in UK waters in return for concessions on trade. Gove was completely opposed to this with the Sun quoting a cabinet source who says that he believes giving away fishing rights to UK waters would be a betrayal of the people in coastal communities who voted for Brexit.

In March 2018 the then Brexit Secretary David Davis and Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, announced that the UK and the EU had agreed a Brexit transition deal. This would be a period of twenty-one months when Britain had formally left the EU and could start trade negotiations with other countries but would still follow all EU rules and regulations. One of the biggest concession the UK made in the transition deal was on fisheries as the UK would continue following EU Common Fisheries Rules until at least the end of the transition phase in December 2020. The UK would be consulted on changes to fisheries rules and quotas during this period, but would have no say or influence to change or amend any regulations.

Davis and Barnier

David Davis MP, left, was the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union before being replaced by Dominic Raab, and Michel Barnier, the EU Chief Brexit Negotiator.

The UK fishing industry reacted with fury to this, with Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation, saying that the transitional deal meant that the UK fishing industry would be at the “whim and largesse of the EU for another two years” and demanded a “cast iron guarantee” that the UK would regain full control of its fisheries after the transitional phase was over. Michael Gove – who had talked up Britain’s prospects of taking back control of fishing stocks during the transition period – called the deal “sub-optimal” and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage said that the he did not believe that the government had the “guts or the strength to stand up and take back our territorial waters.” He also took part in a protest on a fishing boat on the Thames outside Parliament where dead haddock were thrown into the river in protest at the transition deal. The thirteen Scottish Conservative MPs likened the transitional deal to “drink[ing] a pint of cold sick” and warned that they would be prepared to vote against their own party and reject deal which did not return full control of British fishing waters to UK fishermen.

European leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron want full access to British waters.

In late 2018 Theresa May announced that a withdrawal deal had been reached which outlined how the UK would leave the EU. A separate political declaration put forward plans for the future of the relationship between the UK and the EU, although this was non-binding. In terms of fisheries the withdrawal agreement and political declaration did not offer any solid terms or agreements over future fishing rights, only stating that there are plans for a fishing deal to be in place by July 2020. This vagueness led to many within the UK fishing industry fearing that the government is gearing up to grant EU nations access to British fishing waters post-2020 in return for a trade deal with the EU, with many fishermen calling the withdrawal agreement a betrayal. European leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron stated that he would block the UK progressing with a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU unless French fishermen are granted full access to UK waters but Theresa May has insisted that she would not “sell out” British fishermen and the UK would become an “independent coastal nation” once again after Brexit.

2019: Brexit Delays and General Election

While 2019 was the year that the UK was set to leave the EU legislation and laws which would influence fishing and the control of Britain’s fisheries were low down the agenda as the focus shifted to what form Brexit would take, and even if the UK would leave the EU at all.

At the start of 2019 Theresa May made several attempts to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons with little success, with the first attempt in January 2019 seeing MPs vote by by 432 votes to 202 to reject the deal – the biggest defeat for a sitting government in history. All other parties (including the Conservative allies the DUP) voted against the government, and with the Conservative MPs divided between leave and remain it soon became apparent that May would have great difficulty in getting her deal through Parliament. This was proven when a two further attempts by May to pass her deal were defeated, although by narrower margins. These defeats led to Article 50 being extended and the UK’s departure date from the EU being changed to 30th June and then again to 31st October 2019. Following this Theresa May announced that due to her inability to get her Brexit legislation through Parliament and a number of no confidence votes being levelled against her she would step down as Conservative leader and Prime Minister in June 2019. The ensuing Conservative Party leadership election which was won by Boris Johnson, who became Prime Minister in late July 2019.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

In a speech made shortly after becoming leader Johnson outlined his pro-Brexit plans by stating that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than extend the UK’s EU departure date beyond 31st October. Johnson then attempted to prorogue Parliament (prevent it from sitting) in order to limit the time available to MPs to debate – and therefore delay – Brexit but a ruling from the Supreme Court stated that prorogation was unlawful and Parliament was recalled in September 2019. Despite this setback Johnson was able to gain a new revised deal with the EU, and withdrew the whip from twenty-one MPs who had voted against the government in a vote on Brexit, effectively throwing them out of the Conservative Party. This group included prominent Conservative MPs such as Kenneth Clarke, former Chancellor Philip Hammond and several others who had held Cabinet positions, further highlighting Johnson’s hard-line stance on leaving the EU.

With the ejected MPs meaning that the Conservatives no had no majority in Parliament Johnson found it impossible to get Brexit legislation through the House of Commons, and the so-called Benn Act was passed by Parliament which prevented the UK from leaving the EU unless a deal was in place, preventing a no-deal exit on 31st October. This meant that the UK could not leave the EU on the scheduled date, effectively forcing Boris Johnson to break his “dead in a ditch” promise and extend the date on which the UK leaves the EU for a third time until 31st January 2020.

House of Commons

Boris Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament was overruled by the Supreme Court.

In an attempt to break the Brexit deadlock Johnson campaigned for a general election and was eventually successful with the election set to take place on 12th December 2019. Unsurprisingly, Brexit was a major issue in the run up to the election. The Conservatives adopted a clear policy on Brexit with their election slogan being the decisive “Get Brexit Done”. Labour was itself split on Brexit and attempted to keep both leavers and remainers onside with a policy of seeking another delay to Brexit, negotiating a new deal and then putting this deal back to the British people in another EU referendum. The Liberal Democrats aimed to gain votes by being the most pro-EU party and stated that they would revoke Article 50 and keep Britain in the EU without recourse to another referendum in the unlikely event of them winning the election. Other parties such as the Green Party and the SNP also strongly backed remain, while the newly formed Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, criticised the Conservatives for being too soft on Brexit and promised a no-deal Brexit (although they softened this message as the campaign progressed and agreed to stand down in seats won by the Tories in 2017 as part of an unofficial Brexit alliance).

Opinion polls suggested that the result of the election would be close, with tactical voting and a large number of undecided voters making predictions difficult. Despite this the result of the election was a decisive Conservative victory with the party winning 365 seats and Labour slumping to their worst defeat since 1935, winning only 203 seats. Labour lost support in many areas where it had traditionally been strong, with the Conservatives winning in many northern Brexit-supporting constituencies for the first time in generations. The Liberal Democrats strong remain stance backfired with a net loss of one seat and the leader Jo Swinson losing her East Dunbartonshire seat, while the SNP won forty-eight of the fifty-nine Scottish seats and the Green party held their single seat. The Brexit Party failed to win a single seat and gained just two per cent of the vote.

Lib Dems EU

The Liberal Democrats went into the 2019 election with a strong anti-Brexit message, but only won eleven seats.

The near-landslide win for the Conservatives, and the fact that the entire party was united behind Johnson’s plan for leaving the EU, meant that the years of Brexit wrangling and negotiating were now at and end with even pro-EU campaigners admitting that Brexit would now go ahead. This was underlined when the EU Withdrawal Agreement came back to Parliament on 20th December with the government easily winning with 358 MPs voting in favour and 234 against., meaning that the UK was finally set to leave the EU on the 31st January 2020.

January 2020 – UK Leaves the EU

Map of current EU member states.

As 2020 began Brexit happening at the end of the month was a near certainty due to the dominant majority the pro-Brexit Conservative Party held in the House of Commons. Once the country had left the EU an eleven month transition period would begin, during which the UK would continue to observe all existing rules, regulations and legislation while a new trade deal between the UK and EU was negotiated. In mid-January, before the UK had even left the EU, speculation over the role fisheries would play in such a deal were making the news. The EU’s Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan stated that in order for Britain to gain access to EU financial markets the UK would have to allow EU vessels continued access to British fishing grounds.

Whether or not this does turn out to be the case will become apparent as the results of negotiations come to light during the transition period in 2020. However, in the Fisheries Bill which came to parliament in late January 2020 the government passed legislation which gives the UK power to leave EU legislation and rules on fishing and act as an independent coastal state. The bill removed the automatic right of EU vessels to fish in UK waters (although a future deal could give them limited access again) and enshrined in law that fishing within UK waters has to take place within sustainable limits. The Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said that the UK was leaving the “failed” Common Fisheries Policy and that the Fisheries Bill “takes back control of our waters” and allows the UK to “create a sustainable, profitable fishing industry for our coastal communities, whilst securing the long-term health of British fisheries.”

Brexit crowds in Parliament Square at 11pm on January 31st.

At 11pm on the 31st of January 2020 the UK officially left the European Union after forty-seven years of membership. The transition period and negotiations over the future trade deal between the EU and the UK will continue for the rest of the year, with a fisheries deal having to be signed in July. The negotiations which take place throughout 2020 will therefore be pivotal in deciding the post-Brexit future of Britain’s fisheries.

This article was originally written in 2017 and last updated in early February 2020. It will be revised as further developments emerge.

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