Fish is not an obvious candidate to sink the future relationship talks. Its economic significance is trivial in the UK – sea fishing accounts for around 0.12 per cent of GVA.
It employs just under 10,000 people – a number that doubles when fish processing is added. The UK is one of the bigger fishing nations of the EU. Only Spain and Denmark land more fish.
Moreover, fishers on both sides depend on each other’s markets – and for perishable goods like fish, ease of market access matters.
No trade deal could make it much harder to supply some of those markets as now. That seems to be a recipe for an agreement – an economically insignificant issue with a lot of common interests on access and trade.
But as our new report, Fisheries and Brexit, brings out, the political economy of fish is much more about politics than economics.
Fishing has a cultural significance, tied up in the UK’s self-image as a seafaring island nation. Many fishing communities have a pent up reserve of resentment against what they see as the unfairness of the UK’s terms of entry into the Common Market in 1973.
The slogan of “taking back control” resonated – giving the UK access to fish now caught by EU vessels. But those factors aren’t just at play on the UK side. French fishermen are already threatening blockades if the EU doesn’t protect its rights to fish in UK waters.
The Danes have fishers who want to retain their access too. There are eight member states with stakes in the outcome of the negotiations.
There are potentially difficult political tests for leaders on both sides of the Channel with a Presidential election in France and elections to the Scottish Parliament (and a potential launchpad for a second independence referendum if the SNP do well) in 2021.
Last week, Michel Barnier appealed for space for a deal to be done. If that space opens up where might a deal land, the UK will not give up its status as an independent coastal state – whatever its deal with the EU that is what it will be after the end of the transition.
The UK negotiators have made much of the importance of being recognised by the EU as a sovereign equal so this would be an easy concession for the EU to make.
But then the question is whether, as an independent coastal state, the UK is prepared to make any concessions to the EU. There are various dimensions that could take.
The first is to meet the EU complaints that annual negotiations are simply impossible given the number of shared fish stocks. The UK would not be overly compromising its independence by agreeing in principle to a more stable framework, with agreements that covered a number of years.
Second, while the EU could concede that it needs to move away from historic shares which reflect fishing patterns from previous decades and agree in principle that the long-run basis would be “zonal attachment” which is what the UK wants. But the UK could concede that it will phase in changes over time.
That would be a hard sell to fishers who are expecting huge uplifts straight away, but it would give more time for EU fishing communities to adjust, and time for the UK to work out what how it proposes to deal with additional quota (and ensure that it benefits UK fishing communities rather than get transferred into foreign hands which has happened to much of England’s quota in the past and is one of the major sources of resentment).