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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Explained: How EU-UK talks on British waters turned into a fine kettle of fish

EU negotiators have said that if the UK refuses to share its waters, the bloc would deny special access to British fisheries to the European single market.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 29, 2020 7:57:36 am
brexit negotiations, Brexit deadline, EU UK fishing rights, UK fish exports to EU, brexit deal, brexit latest, express explained, indian expressA fresh catch of fish. Although rich fishing grounds belong to the UK, most of the catch from here is exported. (AP Photo/File)

The UK and the EU are currently working on a post-Brexit deal that will determine key aspects of their relationship, such as defence, trade, security and immigration. Among the many unresolved issues in the negotiations, one is the determination of both sides to not let the other fish in troubled waters, quite literally.

As the UK becomes an “independent coast state” after December 31, Britain’s fishing industry, which makes up less than 0.1 per cent of the national economy, has been demanding greater access to the fishing grounds it currently shares with the EU – something the bloc has vehemently resisted.

How are fishing rights currently shared?

Fisheries in the EU – which effectively includes the UK until December 31 – are governed by the bloc’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Under the CFP, fleets from every EU member state can fish in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of all the other members, meaning the part of the sea that stretches up to 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coast, excluding its territorial waters – which end at 12 nautical miles from the coast.

The EU as a bloc, and not individual countries, decides every December the volume of fish from each species that can be caught from the combined EEZs of its members, which are together considered a common resource. Fishing rights are then divided as per national quotas.

As long as the UK has remained a part of the EU, the CFP has allowed fleets from the rest of the bloc to trawl in British waters, known for their bountiful marine resources.

So, what is the UK’s demand?

The British government wants to divide its fishing resources with the EU based on a system that other non-EU coastal countries, such as Norway, use while sharing their waters with the bloc.

This system, called “zonal attachment”, requires the EU to hold annual meetings with the non-EU country to decide the share of fish that each side can catch in the other’s waters.

UK’s politically-significant fishing communities, which employ thousands of people, have insisted that such a system would allow them greater access to waters they say are the country’s own. This is also an emotive topic for Brexiteers, who argue that gaining such rights would mean restoring British sovereignty over its EEZ.

As per the BBC, UK negotiators want British fleets to take over 50 per cent of the catch that EU vessels currently haul every year from Britain’s waters; the total being estimated at around 600 million pounds annually. On December 18, Britain rejected an offer from the EU in which the bloc agreed to let go around 25 per cent of that amount, as per Bloomberg.

A Guardian report said that in case of a no-deal Brexit, armed vessels from the British navy will protect the country’s fishing waters, having the power to stop, check and impound all EU fishing boats operating within the UK’s EEZ.

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How has the EU responded?

The EU is resisting Britain’s zonal attachment proposition. This is mainly because British waters are considerably more bountiful than Norway’s; meaning any departure from the status quo in Britain’s favour would adversely impact trawlers from the bloc.

To counter Britain’s demand, the bloc is using its own powerful bargaining chip. As it happens, although the rich fishing grounds belong to the UK, most of the catch from here is exported. And of the exported fish, 75 per cent is sold to EU countries. At the same time, about 70 per cent of fish consumed in the UK comes from the EU.

EU negotiators have thus said that if the UK refuses to share its waters, the bloc would deny special access for British fisheries to the European single market, effectively burdening them with tariffs. Another problem for the UK is that large portions of its current fishing quotas under the CFP have already been bought by EU firms, thus making it difficult for the country to leave that system without dealing with these non-UK owners.

So, which side is expected to succeed?

Experts say that the UK, which will regain control over its EEZ, is expected to gain greater access for its boats than their current share, although it will also guarantee some rights to EU fleets.

The two sides not securing a Brexit deal over this issue would mean that starting January 1, trade between them will revert to rules and tariffs established by the World Trade Organization in 1995.

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