The fishing industry has issued a last-minute plea to Boris Johnson to hold firm in trade talks with the EU, as a leading representative admitted there were “concerns and fears” that their interests could be sacrificed to secure an agreement by the prime minister’s 15 October deadline.
In a letter to chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, the head of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation, Elspeth Macdonald, said it was “imperative at this crucial stage that the UK remains steadfast”, warning: “Anything given away now will never be regained.”
Speaking as an agreement on access and quotas between the UK and Norway was sealed, Ms Macdonald and the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, Barry Deas, told reporters that they had been given “firm and consistent” assurances by ministers that the interests of UK fishermen will not be abandoned in a scrabble to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 31 December.
And Mr Deas said the industry could benefit from the fact that fishing will be a “litmus test” of Brexit, as one of the few plausible early wins which the PM can claim from a process which otherwise threatens to be dominated by news of queues at the ports and extra paperwork for business.
But the spectre of Mr Johnson throwing his DUP allies under a bus with his last-minute acceptance of a border down the Irish Sea in last year’s EU divorce deal hangs over the process as negotiations enter their endgame.
Mr Deas warned that it would be a “big mistake” for the PM to accept a trade-off between fishing rights and the wider needs of the economy in the final scheduled round of talks taking place in Brussels this week.
But he signalled that the industry would be ready to accept a transition over a number of years to new post-Brexit arrangements, offering a potential route for the PM to find a compromise solution - while claiming victory - to one of the intractable issues standing in the way of agreement.
Asked about Mr Johnson’s record of caving in over the Irish Sea border last year, the NFFO chief said: “The example from the past is a matter of public record, and of course we have our concerns and fears, but all the signals we are receiving are that fishing is absolutely at the top of the agenda.”
He said: “The fishing industry’s fear right from the beginning has been that we would again be sold out as we were in the 1970s.
“That fear hasn’t gone away. But on the other hand, I think fishing has a symbolism that gives it a special status and that is why I think fishing has gone to the top of the list of priorities.
“In some ways it is a litmus test for Brexit. We will know very soon - this year - whether we have got a good deal on fishing or not, whereas some of the other aspects of Brexit will take years or decades to work out.” Mr Deas said that the prime minister should not forget the strong feeling among MPs of all parties, the media and the general public that the UK fishing industry had got a raw deal from the Common Fisheries Policy over the past 40 years and that now was the time to fix it.
“I think the government would find it very difficult politically amongst its own supporters, never mind the kicking it would get in the press and from the fishing industry, if it came back with a poor deal,” he said.
“It is possible to be over-confident, but the signals we have been receiving from government are everything we could have asked for.”
In her letter to Lord Frost, Ms Macdonald said: “It is imperative at this crucial stage that the UK remains steadfast. Securing the right outcome from these fisheries negotiations will deliver an immediate and demonstrable economic benefit.
“There is no clearer example of success than regaining our sovereignty for the benefit of the UK. Conversely, getting a sub-optimal deal on fishing would constitute failure to deliver on promises made to the industry, and would perpetuate the deeply unfair arrangements under EU membership, where others have benefited hugely from the UK’s natural resources, to the UK’s very significant disadvantage.” She told Lord Frost: “We have never been in a stronger position than we are now, but anything given away now will never be regained. SFF urges you to remain firm on fishing, and not to concede our precious natural resources and our sovereignty.”
Ahead of the crucial EU summit in Brussels on 15 October, both sides admit wide gaps remain on the issues of fisheries and state aid.
The UK industry says the EU’s preferred option of a CFP-style long-term allocation of quotas for fish in UK territorial waters would be an “outlier” compared to other agreements between coastal states, such as the UK-Norway deal expected to be signed shortly.
They want annual negotiations on quotas, like those which take place each year between Oslo and Brussels, with national fishing fleets’ shares determined according to the latest scientific judgement of the “zonal attachment” of fish species to particular areas of sea.
However, Mr Deas indicated that the UK industry would be ready to accept a deal which moved gradually from fixed quotas to annual negotiations over a number of years.
“It’s obvious that the timeframe for a move towards zonal attachment is one of the moveable elements in the negotiations,” he said. “I think the UK would be very resistant to any long-term agreement that looked like a CFP-lite - a 10-year agreement or anything of that kind of order would be unacceptable.”
An earlier proposal by French president Emmanuel Macron for a 20-year agreement “is not going to happen”, he said.
But he added: “Some kind of transitional arrangement is one of the things under discussion.
“The key point for us is the destination. We must have absolute certainty that at the end of this we have access to the full quota shares that we as an independent coastal state have a right to expect.
“There is a deal to be done which does allow EU vessels to fish in UK waters in return for movement towards zonal attachment
Ms Macdonald said that the total catch by UK vessels could be expected to double under a move to post-Brexit annual negotiations on fishing quotas, with a knock-on boost for employment not only on the boats but in fish processing plants onshore.