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 end of January 2021 are covered.

Britain was a member of the EC/EU for forty-seven years until 31st January 2020, when membership ended following the 2016 referendum. For the entirety of Britain’s membership, EU rules and regulations had a significant impact on the nation’s fishing industry. This article examines how fishing came to have such influence in UK/EU relations, the role it played in the referendum campaign and how fishing became so important in the post-Brexit trade deal negotiations.

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

Britain joined the EC on 1st January 1973 under Prime Minister Edward Heath. Two and a half years later the EC Membership Referendum took place with the British people being asked: Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)? The result was an overwhelming victory for remaining in the European Community (EC) with 17.3 million people (67 per cent) voting yes and 8.5 million (33 per cent) voting no.

The official logo of Keep Britain in Europe which was used in the 1975 referendum campaign.
The official logo of Keep Britain in Europe which was used in the 1975 referendum campaign.

Before joining the EC 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), an area known as a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. With EC 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 EC. As Article 2 (1) of Council Regulation (EEC) No 101/76 states:

“Member States shall ensure in particular equal conditions of access to and use of the fishing grounds situated in the waters referred to in the preceding subparagraph for all fishing vessels flying the flag of a Member State and registered in Community territory.”

British Prime Minister Edward Heath had negotiated Britain’s bid to join the EC and many in the fishing industry had believed that some kind of special deal would be arranged to allow Britain to maintain some level of control over its fishing waters. This did not happen, despite ministers previously claiming that it would, leaving many fishermen feeling hugely resentful that they would have to share the fish stocks in UK territorial waters with the fishing industries of many other European nations and have catch limits set by Europe. For this reason, the vast majority of the British fishing industry believed they had been ‘sold out’ or ‘betrayed’ in order to for the UK to gain European membership.

Main article: Common Fisheries Policy (CFP)

The European Union’s fishing policy and the principle of equal access to Europe’s fishing waters for all member states became formalised in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which came into force in 1983, as part of the EC’s agricultural 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 are set centrally by the European Commission (the branch of the European Union which 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 (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.

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

Following the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the European Communities became European Union, and the Common Fisheries Policy became a distinct piece of legislation, no longer classed as part of the bloc’s agricultural policy. Supporters of EU membership point out that British fishermen had the right to 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 a 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 nation’s 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 to British fishermen, as they can often end up getting only a small 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). Furthermore, under the common fisheries policy, the number of fish stocks in European waters classed as seriously overfished has increased from 10 per cent in the 1970s to half by the 2000s. For more information on Common Fisheries Policy read our full article by clicking here.

Background to the 2016 Referendum: Britain and Europe

Britain has often been seen as an ‘awkward partner’ of the EU and has had a number of opt-outs from further European integration. These include not joining the Schengen Agreement (which largely abolishes border checks between EU nations) and Britian was one of the two EU nations which was not legally bound to join the Euro single currency (Denmark is the other). Margaret Thatcher was a prominent campaigner for the country joining the EC in 1975 but her premiership from 1979 to 1990 was characterised by clashes with Europe, and her resistance to further British integration into the European project led to tensions within the Conservative party and was seen as a key reason for her downfall in 1990.

Maastricht Treaty
Left, the text of the Maastricht Treaty and anti-Maastricht Treaty posters displayed in the run-up to Ireland’s referendum in June 1992. In Ireland the Yes vote won, gaining 69 per cent of the votes cast.

A major change to Britain’s relationship with Europe came in 1992 when the Maastricht Treaty was signed, transforming the EC into the EU and marking a new phase of European integration with a timetable for the single Euro currency being set out, greater convergence on regulations and laws across member states, the formalisation of European Union citizenship and plans for shared EU security and defence policies being agreed. While many countries had a referendum on ratifying the Maastricht Treaty (France only voted in favour by a margin of 50.8 per cent and Denmark initially voted against ratification but voted in favour of doing so at a second referendum) Britain did not hold a referendum as Prime Minister John Major – who only had a slim parliamentary majority – faced a major rebellion from his own party. The Maastricht Treaty was eventually signed into British law, but a number of prominent Conservative MPs had voted against the government and had the whip withdrawn. John Major was inadvertently recorded referring to three of his own cabinet ministers as “bastards” over their plans to fight against the treaty and the divisions within the party were seen as a key reason for their landslide defeat in the general election in 1997.

The Labour Party has also had its own issues with Europe. The party had remained neutral in the 1975 EC referendum and only dropped its official policy of leaving the EC in 1989. Following this, the party became much more pro-European. Under the leadership of Tony Blair (PM from 1997 to 2007) and Gordon Brown (PM from 2007 to 2010) Labour deepened integration between the UK and the EU. The party stated that the UK would potentially join the Euro single currency (but only when the vague ‘five economic tests’ were met) and opened Britain up to free movement from the Eastern and Central European countries which joined the EU in 2004 when most other EU countries (and all major economies) chose not to do this until 2011. This was controversial as Labour estimated that 5000 to 13,000 migrants from Eastern and Central Europe would come to the UK each year but the actual figure was twenty times higher. The results of this decision were seen as a factor in Labour being voted out of power in the 2010 election and aiding the rise of anti-EU parties (namely UKIP) and pushing discussions about Britain’s EU membership back up the political agenda.

Anti-EU Protest
Anti-EU protest in London.

This new sense of Euroscepticism in the UK was beginning to make itself felt at the ballot box. With the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats (then a much more significant force at Westminster) all broadly supporting further EU/UK integration alternative anti-EU parties started to emerge. The Anti-Federalist League was founded by Professor Alan Sked in 1991 to gain cross-party support to campaign against the Maastricht Treaty. The Anti-Federalist League became a full political party and renamed itself the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in 1993. The single-issue Referendum Party was also founded in 1994 by Sir James Goldsmith following the Maastricht Treaty and went on to finish fourth in the 1997 election gaining over 800,000 votes, although it failed to have any MPs elected. In 2007 the Lisbon Treaty was signed, further increasing the powers of the European Union and causing the issue of the relationship between the UK and the European Union to once again move further up the political agenda.

The EU Referendum

When David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, leading a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government the issues around Europe continued to rumble on in the background of British politics. Cameron was facing a growing split in the Conservative Party as he had at one time promised a “cast-iron guarantee” that there would be a referendum on the UK adopting the Lisbon Treaty before being forced to back down and adopting the treaty without holding a referendum. In 2013 he made the bold decision that the UK would have an in/out referendum on EU membership if the party won a clear majority at the next general election. With the Conservative Party winning that election in May 2015 the legislation was passed meaning that the referendum had to be held by December 2017. The 2015 election, however, showed the rising sense of Euroscepticism in the UK, with UKIP winning 12.6 per cent of the vote, having already won the 2014 European Election in the UK, the first time a party other than Labour or the Conservatives had won a national election in the UK in over one hundred years.

Ballot paper from the 2016 referendum.
Ballot paper from the 2016 referendum.

The date for the referendum was set as the 23rd June 2016. Campaigning began with Britain Stronger in Europe being designated as the official cross-party group which would campaign for Remain, while Vote Leave was the official party of Leave. The government officially took a Remain stance, but cabinet ministers and senior party officials were allowed to campaign for whichever side they saw fit, an unusual situation as the rule of collective ministerial responsibility means that ministers usually must back the government regardless of their personal views.

Fishing in the EU Referendum Campaign

Commercial fishing is, in fact, a very small part of the UK economy. Out of a workforce of approximately 32 million people [as of 2020] commercial fishing directly employs around 12,000 people in the UK [Source: Marine Socio-Economics Project, New Economics Foundation] 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, and it has a lower contribution to the UK economy than Harrods department store in London.

Despite this, commercial fishing is often seen as very important to coastal communities around the UK, even if economically it has been overtaken by other industries. In many of these communities (which would go on to vote heavily in favour of leaving the EU) the decline of jobs in the fishing industry was blamed on the EU, and the loss of control of British waters was seen as a clear consequence of continued EU membership. For these reasons, fishing has a social and political significance and media profile which is much higher than its economic importance would suggest.

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage pictured in 2018.

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 grounds 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 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 onboard) 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

The referendum result was confirmed in the early hours of 24th 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 the major metropolitan areas voted to leave the EU. Areas that traditionally had a large fishing industry, such as Hull and Grimsby had some of the highest proportion of Leave votes in the country.

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 result of the referendum led to 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 the leader of the Conservative Party and therefore Prime Minister in July 2016. In December of that year, MPs 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 on 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 took 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 meant that the UK would leave the European Union and with it all of the EU institutions such as the European Single Market and Customs Union and no longer have 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 that 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 that 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 be 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. 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 newspapers predicting a 100-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
Hard Brexit RIP: 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 Conservative’s 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 Davidso
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 won fifty-six of the fifty-nine parliamentary seats in Scotland in the 2015 general election, 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 won in 2015 to thirteen seats in 2017. 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 northeast of Scotland – the heartlands of Scotland’s fishing industry. Some SNP politicians in constituencies that 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, her signing of 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.

As 2017 progressed many EU countries which were heavily reliant on their fisheries accessing UK territorial waters began to battle 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 (to which Britain and Denmark are both signatories) says that nearby countries must respect the “traditional fishing rights” of each other. Similarly, the Dutch fishing industry 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 came from within UK waters. The small Belgian fishing industry was also set for major problems if Britain regained control of its waters as half of their catch was from UK waters.

Some sections of the European fishing industry were so dismayed at the possibility of losing access to British fishing grounds that they openly stated that they would 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 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 had suffered severe cuts since 2010 and the four River-class patrol vessels which made up the Fisheries Protection Squadron were often tasked with other duties – one of them, HMS Clyde was 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 the number of boats boarded by fisheries protection vessels has fallen 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, pointed out that a new digital vessel monitoring system had been developed which allowed the UK to keep track of ships within its waters. He also said that five new River-class patrol boats were being constructed, although he did admit that fisheries protection would not be their only role.

EU nations such as Denmark argued that if the UK wants to continue selling fish into the EU’s tariff-free Single Market then EU vessels would require continued access to British waters. The UK already exports large amounts of the fish caught in British waters to the EU, and imports much of the fish eaten by UK consumers come from countries that are not in the EU but are in the Single Market (such as Iceland and Norway). If the UK left the EU with no deal and tariffs were imposed on UK fish and seafood being exported to the EU the result would be hugely damaging to the British fishing industry, as would red tape and goods checks as goods moved between the UK and the EU as these would affect the freshness and quality of the products being exported. For this reason, many believed that there would be a post-Brexit compromise deal that allowed EU nations some access to British waters under a licencing deal in return for British access to sell catches into the EU.

2018: Continued Brexit Negotiations

In late 2017 an agreement was reached for the UK to move onto the second phase of trade talks with the EU in 2018, prior to leaving the bloc 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 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 at all. 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 on 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 concessions the UK made in the transition deal was on fisheries as the UK would continue following Common Fisheries Policy 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, although it would have to abide by them.

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. Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation, said 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 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 a deal that did not return full control of British fishing waters to UK fishermen.

European leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron wanted 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 was 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 from 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 leaving the EU.

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. Some MPs, including Conservative ministers, pressed to stop Britain from leaving the EU without a deal under any circumstances, while another new political party, Change UK, was formed to campaign for a second referendum and overturn Brexit altogether.

At the start of 2019, Theresa May made several unsuccessful attempts to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons. The first attempt in January 2019 saw MPs vote by 432 votes to 202 to reject the deal – the biggest defeat for a sitting government in history. With other parties (including the Conservative allies the DUP) opposed to the deal (plus a significant faction of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs known as the European Research Group) it soon became apparent that May would have great difficulty in getting her deal through Parliament. This was proven when two further attempts by May to pass her deal were also 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 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 for a transition period 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 hardline stance on leaving the EU.

With the ejected MPs meaning that the Conservatives 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 once again, this 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 a second 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).

Although the Conservatives were ahead in most polls leading up to the election it was still believed that the result 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 MPs in many northern Brexit-supporting constituencies for the first time in generations. The Liberal Democrat’s strong remain stance backfired with a net loss of one seat and their leader Jo Swinson losing her own East Dunbartonshire seat, while the SNP recovered from the 2017 election by winning forty-eight of the fifty-nine Scottish seats and the Green party’s single MP was re-elected. The Brexit Party gained just 2 per cent of the vote and failed to win any seats, while Change UK, who strongly backed a second referendum, stood in only three seats, failed to win any of them and gained just 10,006 votes which equated to 0.3% of the national 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 an end with even pro-EU and second referendum 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 set to leave the EU on the 31st January 2020.

2020: January – The UK Leaves the EU
Map of current EU member states.

Britain went into the new year knowing that the delays were over and the country would finally leave the EU at the end of January 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 (including those on fishing) 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 was 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 to continue to access British fishing grounds.

Crowds gathered in Parliament Square at 11 pm on January 31st as the UK formally left the European Union.

At 11 pm on the 31st of January 2020 the UK officially left the European Union after forty-seven years of membership. A transition period was then entered into where the UK would continue to follow all existing EU rules and laws until the 31st December 2020. During this transition period negotiations were set to take place to arrange a deal that would decide the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The new rules governing how Britain would take back control of its own fishing waters and the extent to which EU vessels would be able to continue accessing UK waters were set to be decided by July 2020.

2020: February to March – Transition Period Begins

Negotiations on a trade deal between the UK and the EU which would come into force on 1st January 2021 soon began. A huge range of issues would be covered in the negotiations including financial services, pharmaceuticals, security and defence cooperation, worker’s rights, science and research, state aid and many others including fisheries. From the outset of talks between Britain and the EU, it became clear that fishing rights would prove to be one of the pivotal issues in the negotiations. The EU insisted that any deal must allow EU fishermen to continue to access British waters, while the UK government said that Britain re-establishing itself as an independent coastal state was one of the main benefits of Brexit. If a deal could be reached then there was the opportunity for a compromise where the UK would allow a set level of EU fishing in the waters controlled by Britain. But if Britain left on a no-deal basis then it would mean that Britain would immediately regain control of the entirety of its territorial waters and EU vessels would have no right to fish in them. It would, however, also mean that trade between the UK and the bloc would be undertaken on WTO (World Trade Organisation) terms from the 1st January 2021. While this would have serious implications for a wide number of industries and businesses [the impact of which are outside the scope of this article] it would also mean that the EU would impose punishing tariffs on all of the fish and shellfish caught by British fishermen and exported to the EU. With the EU being by far the largest market for British seafood exports this would, in the short-term at least, prove extremely damaging for UK seafood exporters and the nation’s fishing industry.

The UK EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) in blue. A deal would allow EU vessels negotiated access to this zone, while a no-deal Brexit would see EU fishing vessels banned from this zone from 1st January 2021.

Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator stated at the start of February that any deal “must include an agreement on fisheries” and “this agreement should provide reciprocal access to markets and waters which contains quota shares.” With the Conservatives having heavily promoting the ability of the UK to regain control of its waters post-Brexit fishing was set to be an area where the two sides would clash and reaching an agreement would prove extremely difficult.

An article in the Guardian in the same month said that the UK had been “quietly increasing” its maritime defences in preparation for taking back control of its waters following the end of the transition period. It was revealed that the four River-class patrol vessels would be doubled to eight by 2021 through the construction of new ships and the recommissioning of HMS Tyne and HMS Severn which had been set to be taken out of active service in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Additionally, the UK authorities were procuring two more inspection ships and it was announced that the Marine Management Organisation (the governmental body responsible for policing English waters) would be able to obtain up to twenty-two vessels in an emergency situation and was also considering purchasing two surveillance aircraft. The Guardian stated that these measures were being taken to “prevent a repeat of the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s once the UK fully completes its departure from the EU at the end of 2020” and were seen as evidence that the UK was ramping up its coastal patrol capabilities in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

2020: April to August – Coronavirus Delays

David Frost was appointed as the UK’s chief negotiator and formal face-to-face negotiations began with EU officials in April. Within weeks the scale and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic which was sweeping the world became clear and it was soon apparent that the planned negotiations could not continue as the governments of all nations needed to spend their time and resources on dealing with the pandemic. The talks were therefore placed on hold and the agreement on fisheries (which was supposed to be agreed upon by July) was given the same deadline as the wider trade deal of December 2020.

2020: September to November – Talks Resume

When the negotiations resumed in Brussels in September there was agreement on many areas such as labour rights, security and environmental standards but fishing remained an area of major disagreement. Media reports emerged stating that Britain wanted to base fishing rights on the relationship non-EU Norway has with the EU. This would involve Britain controlling its own waters and granting licences to EU vessels to fish within them. The amount of fish EU vessels could catch and the amount of time they could spend fishing in British waters would be renegotiated every year. This was rejected by the EU which wanted ongoing access for EU vessels to be written into a deal and only a small proportion of the fish caught in British waters to be returned to UK fishermen. At an event hosted by a Dublin-based think tank, Michel Barnier said that the UK could take full control of its own waters but went on to say that “the fish which are inside those waters [is] another story.” In response, a spokesperson for the UK government said:

“The EU have refused to engage with our proposals … insisting we must accept continuity with EU fisheries policy and disregarding the UK’s status as an independent coastal state. We need more realism from the EU on the scale of the change that results from our leaving the EU.”

Commercially Caught Fish
Fishing rights became one of the major issues when it came to agreeing to a wider trade deal between the UK and the EU.

The French fishing industry was the most dependent on accessing British fishing grounds, with a quarter of France’s national catch coming from British waters. In France’s biggest fishing port, Boulogne-sur-Mer in the north of the country, some fishermen took up to 80 per cent of their total catch from the UK’s territorial waters. For this reason, the French president Emmanuel Macron took a hardline stance on fishing, knowing that there will be severe political ramifications for him if France’s fishing fleet was to have a significantly reduced fishing catch from British waters or were barred altogether in the case of a no-deal Brexit. There was also pressure on Boris Johnson and the British government to reach a deal, with many commentators in the left-wing press such as Polly Toynbee predicting that fishing was simply too small an industry to prevent a wider deal from being signed and claimed that there would be “no fishing industry without that vital EU market to buy more than 70% of our catch.” Pressure also came from the political right with June Mummery, the former Brexit Party MEP telling the Brexit Unlocked YouTube Channel that Boris Johnson would be “finished” if he did not “take back full control of our waters.”

In late November the Fisheries Bill received Royal Assent and passed into law. This gave the UK control of its own waters for the first time since 1973 and ended the automatic right of EU vessels to fish in British waters. Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “This is a huge moment for the UK fishing industry. This is the first domestic fisheries legislation in nearly forty years, and we will now take back control of our waters out to 200 nautical miles or the median line. By swiftly responding to the latest scientific advice and needs of our fishing industries we will secure a thriving future for our coastal communities.”

By the end of November, it had become clear that a no-deal outcome was a very real possibility with both sides maintaining that the other had to make significant concessions on fishing rights for there to be any hope of a deal. EU vessels losing access to British waters and the British fishing and seafood industries having to absorb tariffs on their goods being sent to the EU would begin on the 1st January 2021 if a deal could not be reached.

2020: December – Final Stages of Negotiations and Deal Agreed

Talks continued into December, well past the point at which they should have concluded. With agreement seeming as far away as ever Boris Johnson said that a no-deal outcome was now “very, very likely” and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, told EU leaders that there was more chance of Britain leaving without a deal than with one.

Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen

The scale of the differences between the two sides also became apparent during this time. British fishermen catch €850 million (£760 million) worth of fish in British waters, while EU fishermen catch around €650 million (£589 million) annually. Britain had been demanding that 80 per cent of the EU’s catch by value be returned to the UK but reduced this to 60 per cent as a compromise. Michel Barnier had initially offered 15 per cent and later moved to 18 and then 25 per cent. This was rejected by Britain. The timescale over which the changes would be phased in was also an issue with the UK demanding no more than three years but Barnier and the EU a fourteen year transition period which they then reduced to seven. The EU also wanted its fishing vessels to be able to fish in the six to twelve-mile zone from the British coastline, while the UK government insisted on EU vessels being banned from this zone.

A further emerged during this time. The EU wanted a clause written into the deal which allowed the bloc to impose wide-ranging tariffs on all goods being exported from Britain to the EU if the UK changed or amended the agreement on fisheries in the future. This clause was reportedly dubbed ‘the hammer’ by EU officials who said that it needed to be included if a deal was to be reached. Such a clause would mean that any future changes to fisheries would affect many other areas of the UK economy which had nothing to do with fishing. UK chief negotiator David Frost, Boris Johnson and other Downing Street officials unequivocally rejected the hammer and said that if the EU insisted on including this clause it would result in no deal.

During this time Gerard van Balsfoort, the chairman of the European Fisheries Alliance, made it clear how much pressure was on the Barnier and the EU not to give in to Britain’s demands. In quotes published in the Guardian van Blasfoot said that even the eighteen to 25 per cent offer to the UK was “unprecedented” and amounted to selling EU fishermen “down the river” saying:

“Our industry is literally and metaphorically on the brink and in spite of repeated promises made, we are in the throes of being sold down the river with the offer made to the United Kingdom by the European Commission … The one thing we wanted to avoid was a ‘no deal’ situation in the interests of all our fishermen but the deal which is now being proposed is every bit as bad. We are looking at vicious and unprecedented cuts on a wide range of stocks including our pelagic, shellfish and whitefish sectors … it could spell the death knell for large parts of an industry which has contributed so much to coastal communities across nine EU states.”

Much was made of a dinner held between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen (during which scallops and turbot were served) which was held on 9th December with a number of British news outlets claiming it was the last chance for a deal to be agreed. A Downing Street spokesperson said that the dinner went well and a “frank discussion” was had but “major differences” remained, while a statement from von der Leyen said that a “lively and interesting” discussion took place but the two sides “remain far apart.” Another deadline set for 11 pm on 20th December also passed without a deal being agreed, meaning that negotiations continued into the final days of December. On the 21st December it was reported that Boris Johnson had made a concession on fishing and was willing to accept regaining 35 per cent of the EU’s current fishing take instead of the 80 per cent the UK was originally demanding. In return, the EU would have to drop the threat of ‘the hammer’ and agree that tariffs would be restricted to fish and seafood only in the event of any future changes if the UK was to agree to move to 35 per cent. On the 22nd December news emerged that the EU had rejected this offer but talks would continue.

RS UK-EU Brexit Trade Deal
A trade deal between the UK and the EU was agreed on Christmas Eve 2020.

On Christmas Eve it was finally announced that the UK and the EU had agreed to a deal covering the £650 billion of bilateral trade between the UK and the EU. Due to the amount of detail needed and the number of different areas covered the document ran to 1,200 pages. Due to how little time was left the EU would provisionally approve the deal meaning it would be in place from 1st January and with a vote in the EU parliament to formally ratify the deal happening retrospectively by the end of February. It was also announced that Parliament would be recalled to vote on the deal, although most MPs would do this remotely due to the coronavirus restrictions which were in place. On the 30th December, MPs voted by 521 to 73 to pass the deal which gained Royal Assent the following day meaning it passed into law.

UK/EU Fisheries Deal and Response

The deal on fishing which was agreed by the EU and the UK consisted of the following:

  • The deal on fishing will be phased in over five and a half year adjustment period with EU vessels still able to fish in UK waters during this time.
  • The quota of fish EU vessels can catch in UK waters will be reduced over the adjustment period and the amount British fishermen can catch will increase. The EU catch will reduce by 15 per cent in the first year and then 2.5 per cent for the following four years, meaning that the UK will regain 25 per cent of the current EU catch in British waters by year five.
  • Fish and seafood will continue to be traded between the UK and the EU with no tariffs imposed.
  • EU vessels that have a record of fishing in the six to twelve-mile zone from the British coastline will continue to be able to do so during the adjustment period.
  • After the five and a half year adjustment period is over the rights of EU vessels to access UK waters and the quotas of fish that they are allowed to catch will be negotiated on an annual basis.
  • The EU’s ‘hammer clause’ has been dropped. If the UK changes the agreement on fisheries the EU can respond by placing proportionate tariffs on British fish and seafood products, but not on other imports/exports which are unconnected to fishing.

Boris Johnson – who wore a tie that featured a fish pattern as he announced the deal on Christmas Eve – stated that the catch for British fishermen would go from around half of the fish quota in British waters to around two-thirds by the end of the adjustment period and went on to say:

“The EU began with I think wanting a transition period of fourteen years, we wanted three years, we’ve ended up at five years. I think that was a reasonable transition period and I can assure great fish fanatics in this country that we will as a result of this deal be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish.”

However, many in the fishing community were not happy with the deal. Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) accused the government of “bottling it” and said that only “a fraction of what the UK has a right to under international law” had been taken back. Others claimed that the loss of the ability to quota swap (exchanging unwanted quota between UK fishermen and EU fishermen) would wipe out any other gains. There was also anger over the continuation of EU fishing vessels operating in the six to twelve-mile zone around the British coastline, something Barrie Deas had believed was an “absolute red line.” Many in the Scottish fishing industry were equally unhappy with the deal saying that while their catches of pelagic species (mackerel and herring) would go up, the inability to exchange quotas with EU nations would see their catches of whitefish go down. Scottish Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said:

“This is a terrible outcome for Scotland’s coastal communities. “The small gains in quota for mackerel and herring are far outweighed by the impact of losses of haddock, cod and saithe – and that threatens to harm onshore jobs and businesses linked to harbours, fish markets and processing facilities.”

However, former Labour MP Brian Wilson took a different view. Writing in the Scotsman he pointed out that the Scottish fishing industry was not a single entity but instead a “series of regional industries which, historically and currently, have different and often conflicting interests.” He went on to say that “whatever one thinks of Brexit, a fishing deal that gives increased quotas, a five-year transition to full control of UK waters and – critically – continuing access to EU markets is a betrayal of nothing.” Further support came from the European Research Group of Conservative MPs. While they had been opposed to Theresa May’s Brexit deal they were supportive of Johnson’s, saying that the overall deal restored sovereignty and in terms of fishing allowed the UK to leave the Common Fisheries Policy and take back full control of Britain’s waters from 2026. The government also announced that an additional £100 million would be invested in the British fishing industry over the five and a half year adjustment period to modernise fishing vessels and improved shore-based processing facilities.

While some in the British fishing industry were not happy with the deal the same could be said for their European counterparts. Johan Nooitgedagt of the Dutch Fishermen’s Union was quoted in the Courier as saying: “[The deal] gives fishermen a sense of the fact that they will be allowed to fish in British waters for at least five and a half years, but this deal is anything but certainty … In five and a half years, there will be renegotiations and our fishermen may not only lose their fishing grounds but also more quota … The 25 per cent reduction in the quota hurts and cannot be explained.”

German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner stated that she would have liked the amount of quota given back to the UK to be “significantly lower” and that the deal would result in “painful cuts” to the European Union’s fishing industry and Clement Beaune, the French Minister for European Affairs, that the deal was “a difficult effort” but was also “acceptable and doable.” The Dutch international fishing company Parlevliet & Van der Plas also said that they would be stopping fishing in the waters of the UK as the reduction in the EU’s quota in British waters was the equivalent of the company losing €100 million in turnover.

The Future

The fisheries deal struck between the EU and the UK may be best understood as a mutual compromise that neither side was going to be fully happy with. Many of the opening demands from both sides were somewhat fanciful (such as the UK wanting to take back 80 per cent of the EU quota and the EU demanding a fourteen year adjustment period) and would always have to be reduced in order to reach an agreement. With the deal the British government is able to say that the country has left the Common Fisheries Policy and also has gained a tangible benefit by increasing the amount of fish UK fishermen can catch and the EU is able to say that the cuts to its own quota in British waters are not as swingeing as they could have been and will be brought in gradually as the bloc has five years of certainty and stability to adapt to the new situation.

While the Brexit deal was a compromise for both sides it does mean that the amount of fish British fishermen can catch will increase.

What is clear is that from the moment the UK left the Brexit transition period at 11 pm on 31st December the UK regained the ability to set its own fishing policies and EU vessels lost the automatic right to access British waters. After forty-seven years of being tied to the EC/EU and the Common Fisheries Policy, the coming decades will be very different for Britain’s fisheries.