So Long, and Say Thanks for All the Fish

The post-Brexit talks between Britain and Europe could hinge on whether the U.K. really tries to “take control” of its fisheries—or if Europe keeps access to British waters.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, peering over the bow of a trawler in Scotland on Sept. 6, 2019, made control of fisheries in Brexit a big part of his successful election campaign.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, peering over the bow of a trawler in Scotland on Sept. 6, 2019, made control of fisheries in Brexit a big part of his successful election campaign. Duncan McGlynn/AFP/Getty Images

The United Kingdom and the European Union have now formally laid down their opening positions for the high-stakes talks this year on their future economic relationship after Brexit. And while Britain’s stated refusal to swallow any of Europe’s demands for regulatory alignment and a level playing field grabs most of the headlines, a potentially bigger and even more imminent flash point looms elsewhere: Fish.

Since joining in the early 1970s what would eventually become the EU, Britain, like other European countries, has essentially had a shared approach to fisheries in British and European waters. And that has long been a sore point for British fishermen, who rightly note that European fishing vessels gained access to a lot more U.K. waters than the other way around and who chafe at what they see as Brussels’s ham-handed management of fisheries, including annual quotas and rules that member states must abide by.

Since British membership in Europe happened to coincide with the near-collapse of the British fishing industry, Europe has become a scapegoat for that decline. Taking back control of British fisheries, like borders, regulation, and justice, became a central plank in the 2016 campaign for Brexit—and the new government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already laid out its plan for sovereign control of fisheries in legislation.

Britain’s negotiating position, published Thursday, calls for a comprehensive free trade agreement between the U.K. and the European Union—but doesn’t even include fisheries as part of that deal. Instead, as with security, law enforcement, and aviation, Britain sees a future fisheries agreement as something completely separate. The U.K. aims to cut off European fishing vessels’ access to British waters and negotiate any access and allowable catches on a yearly basis.

Europe, in stark contrast, sees fisheries as almost the keystone of any future economic agreement between the two. In its negotiating position, also published this week, Europe made clear that any talks on trade must start with a continuation of the current EU fishing arrangement—where European vessels have open access to British waters and remain under the management of the Common Fisheries Policy Britain so despises, including annual quotas.

“Fisheries are absolutely a big flash point,” said Joe Owen, the Brexit program director at the Institute for Government, a think tank in London. “The two sides have been squaring up on this for a long time.”

More urgently, while the two sides ostensibly have until the end of the year to wrap up talks on their future trade relationship, Europe made clear that the fisheries question must be sorted by July 1 so that European fleets can plan for next year’s fishing quotas.

“The clock is really ticking—it has to be done by summer,” said Michael Leigh, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels. “The idea that December is the deadline is false as far as fisheries are concerned.”

It’s a bit odd that fish and fisheries could occupy such a central place in the all-important discussions about the future economic relationship between the U.K. and Europe. It’s a vanishingly small industry in economic terms in both blocs, especially in the U.K., where it represents about 0.1 percent of GDP. In contrast, the EU accounts for roughly half of British imports and exports in the economy as a whole—making the securing of a broad free trade agreement a lot more economically important than wresting control of coastal waters.

But fisheries have always been an emotive and politically sensitive issue, in both Britain and the Continent. Fishing states in the EU, such as Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, will likely have to sign off on whatever future economic agreement the two sides make—which means Brussels has to secure continued access for European fishermen as part of any accord if it expects to ratify it.

In Britain, coastal fishing communities voted overwhelmingly for Brexit—even in Scotland, which on the whole roundly rejected the referendum to leave Europe. Many British fishermen who argue that joining Europe led to the decimation of their industry and see a golden opportunity to right that mistake now fear the government could throw fishing interests under the bus to secure a broader deal.

“It’s a hugely political and symbolic issue, even if it’s nowhere near as economically important as some other industries—communities and constituencies are based around fishing,” Owen said. “And from the EU side, the same thing is true. The U.K. is a vital trading partner—would they imperil that because of fishing communities in coastal states?”

Britain’s fight with Europe over fish obviously didn’t start with the EU or the Common Fisheries Policy. For centuries, access to the rich fishing waters off the British coast has been a bone of contention between England, Scotland, and Europeans like the Danes, Dutch, and French.

While England granted pretty free access to the Dutch and others to fish in British waters under Queen Elizabeth I, the growing power and wealth of the Dutch herring fleets angered many Brits—especially Scots, then and now the most reliant on the fishing industry. As the legal historian Douglas Johnston has noted, when Scotland’s James VI took the throne of England as James I, he made that animosity to foreign fishing fleets state policy. In 1609, he laid claim to British fisheries and banned all foreign vessels—unless they got a license from the British crown, pretty much the same recipe for fishing access as envisioned in Boris Johnson’s road map.

The British obsession with claiming ownership and sovereignty of its waters culminated in the legal theories of John Selden, who coined the “closed sea” school of maritime law to rebut Dutch rivals who’d pioneered a legal vision of an “open sea.” That frontal confrontation between British and Continental visions of how to share European waters continued, with fishing a big part of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century.

Access to fishing grounds has also colored the Anglo-French rivalry for centuries, with fishing rights an important part of peace treaties in 1763 and 1815. Both countries spent the rest of the 19th century trying to sort out fishing rights in the English Channel—and still are, at times, with several “scallop wars” breaking out in recent years.

But Britain’s best-known fight over fish is probably the three “cod wars” with Iceland between the 1950s and 1970s. (There were actually 10 in all, going back centuries.) The showdown over the British fishing fleets’ access to rich cod waters off Iceland played out in repeated violent clashes over a period of decades and nearly pulled Iceland out of NATO and into the Soviet orbit. In the end, Britain lost most of its access to what had been a very lucrative fishing ground—just as the overall industry was entering a period of sharp decline and right as Britain joined Europe.

While British fishermen blame Europe and its fisheries policy for their economic decline, the problem isn’t really in Brussels—but in the water. Beginning in the late 19th century, steam trawlers began replacing small sailing vessels, making longer trips for further distances with ever more sophisticated gear to land ever larger hauls of bottom-dwelling fish like cod and haddock. The end result was massive overfishing—and no matter how hard the British fleet worked, it could never catch as much fish as it did more than a century before.

“For every unit of fishing power expended today, bottom trawlers land little more than one-seventeenth of the catches in the late nineteenth century,” one scientific study concluded. “The Common Fisheries Policy was not responsible for this collapse, although under its auspices most stocks have continued to decline.”

But since the collapse coincided with European membership and common fisheries management, fishing communities tended to blame quotas and European ships. That’s one reason coastal communities were vocal proponents of the Leave campaign and are still pressuring the Johnson government to seize the chance to reclaim British control over fisheries.

“There’s no doubt that British fishermen view Brexit as the occasion to try and expel European fishing vessels from U.K. waters,” Leigh said.

It’s not even clear that British plans to do so would prevail. Under international law, nations can lay claim to historic fishing rights—which would likely give European fleets at least some access to waters that they have plied for decades or even centuries.

And for the British fishing industry as a whole, there is a bigger question looming in the talks with Europe. Britain by and large doesn’t eat what its fishing fleet catches, exporting most of the fish to Europe. What Brits like to eat, in contrast, is mostly landed by European fleets.

While the British negotiating plan blithely assumes that it can keep free trade in fish while barring European fleets, that’s unlikely to work, Owen noted. Continued tariff-free access to Europe for that exported British fish will depend on first reaching an agreement over fishing access in the first place.

Most observers expect that fish and fisheries will ultimately become a bargaining chip in this year’s talks. 

Europe hopes that if Britain is forced to ask for an extension—even though the Johnson government has been absolutely adamant that talks will be done by December or not at all—it can squeeze out fishing concessions from London as the price of more time. Britain wants to use fishing access, which is simply a must-have for many coastal states in the EU, as a lever to secure continued privileges for hugely important economic sectors, like trade in goods or financial services.

But what if the chip never gets bargained away but becomes the game itself?

“The risk is, rather than working to get to the middle ground, because it is such a politically totemic issue for certain constituencies on both sides, you end up with very hard-line positions and end up with a bust-up over fish,” Owen said. “Something that has relatively small economic value could end up preventing a much bigger deal.”

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP