LONDON — In the greater scheme of things, fishing is a tiny industry. Just 12,000 people in Britain fish from 6,000 vessels, contributing less than half of one percent of gross domestic product — less than the upmarket London department store Harrods, according to one analysis. The same holds true for most continental European nations.
Yet, as negotiations between Britain and the European Union on a long-term trade deal grind along toward the Dec. 31 deadline, fisheries are proving to be one of the most politically treacherous sticking points. Here’s why the issue is giving negotiators such fits.
Why are fisheries so important?
Boats from continental Europe have fished off the British coast for centuries, and those communities say they face ruin if they were to be locked out of those waters.
But in Britain, European Union membership has meant sharing British waters with fleets from France or other nations — and sometimes seeing bigger, more modern ships catching a larger proportion of the fish. In one zone off the English coast, 84 percent of the cod is allocated to France and just 9 percent to Britain, according to Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organizations.
The British fishing industry contends that its interests were sacrificed for more profitable sectors when the country joined the European Economic Community, a forerunner to the European Union, in 1973. Now that Britain has left the bloc, they want their fish back.
So a few fishing communities are going to hold up a wider trade deal?
Fishing has a hold on the public imagination in a way that more lucrative sectors — say, insurance — never will. It can become front page news as it was, periodically, when tensions escalated between Britain and Iceland in the “cod wars” that simmered from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. At the time, boats were sometimes rammed, and British warships were even deployed to protect trawlers.
Recent weeks have brought a reminder of those days. A confrontation between British and French boats (in what one newspaper called the “scallop wars”) was a harbinger, perhaps, of what could happen next year should the trade talks fail. France’s famously assertive fishing crews also have the capacity to blockade Calais — the main port linking Britain to continental Europe. That could cause a big disruption to trade.
The politics of navigating this are difficult, as well. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, promised great things to the fishing fleet during the campaign leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum. Now, he needs to deliver or risk accusations of betrayal. But the French president, Emmanuel Macron, faces an election in 2022, and giving in to the British is not the best way to win votes in France.
What are the disagreements?
Quite a lot. The European Union argues that the current arrangements should continue, with more or less the existing quotas, and with continental trawlers allowed automatic access to most British waters. Britain says this is anathema for an independent coastal state and that the Europeans need to accept that Britain has left their club.
France, whose fishing fleet is particularly affected, has taken the hardest line on the European Union side, with other nations more willing to compromise to reach a wider trade deal.
Another contentious point is how future quotas will be decided. Britain wants annual negotiations of the type that the European Union undertakes with Norway over fish. The European Union argues that, because there more than 100 species to be haggled over (the main negotiations with Norway focus on half a dozen types of fish), such a system is impractical.
Who has the upper hand in the negotiations?
The fishing industry is one of the areas where Britain has the advantage in the Brexit trade negotiations, on paper at least. Without an agreement, Britain would regain control of its waters and could ban continental fleets from them.
But there is a downside. Britain exports much of what it catches and imports much of the fish it eats (mainly the cod and haddock that are staples of neighborhood fish and chips shops). Almost half of what’s caught by Britain’s fleet is “pelagic,” meaning fish that live and feed in open water, rather than on the bottom of the ocean. These are species like mackerel or herring that few Britons touch, and that fetch a better price abroad (as does shellfish).
Although Britain is a net importer of fish, around four-fifths of what is landed by British vessels is exported, mainly to other European countries. Without an agreement, British fish exporters could face tariffs and find their products waiting — and perhaps rotting — at continental ports while inspectors carry out lengthy checks.
Will there be a deal?
Whatever the rhetoric from Paris, the European Union knows that, without an agreement, continental fishing fleets could be locked out of British waters, so there is an incentive for the European Union to settle. Germany, the bloc’s biggest economy, is thought to be encouraging the French to compromise. The British seafood industry (including producers of farmed salmon) badly wants access to continental European markets.
The British government has hinted at a potential solution: a transition — or “glide path” — under which British fishing quotas would gradually expand at the expense of those of continental nations. That would give the European fleet time to adjust and the British time to expand fishing fleets and revitalize coastal communities to take advantage of new opportunities.
Both sides have an interest in striking a deal, but finding one means navigating choppy political waters.