Richard North, 04/09/2020  

To recognise that commercial fishing occupies a special place in the Eurosceptic credo is not irrational. It is simply a statement of fact – a reality. Then for the European Union to anticipate that the reality would have political implications would be sensible.

That would also include understanding that any British politician might have problems rolling over the EU's CFP on the basis of the status quo ante, which means that, if it wanted a deal, then the EU's negotiating mandate would need to cut the UK a bit of slack.

As it stands, though, the EU is demanding a perpetuation of the single most offensive (from the British perspective) aspect of the CFP, the principle of "relative stability". This means that, while the total allowable catch may go up or down as the years pass, each of the national fleets gets the same proportion of what is available to be fished.

The British, however, are not the only ones over a political barrel and EU Member States are just as keen to support their fishing industries and therefore have been insisting that Barnier doesn't give ground.

The British, on the other hand, could have taken into account the difficulties Barnier faced. There might have been the possibility of a standstill agreement, perhaps for as long as ten years, to give the Member State fleets time to adjust.

Possibly, one way of doing it might have been to agree reference year TACs (Total Allowable Catches), arranging for any increase in the TACs on that that year to go to British fishermen. But, if the TAC dropped below the reference level, then relative stability might apply. In good times, therefore, the EU flagged fleets would be guaranteed a minimum catch and, in bad times, everybody shares the pain.

As it stands, the British have rejected 'relative stability' outright, and have adopted for a system called 'zonal attachment'. This means that, in principle, national quotas are determined by reference to the spatial distribution of the fish, reflecting the time the biomass spends in the zone.

However, there is no single agreed definition of how zonal attachment should be measured which means that the process for deciding allocations has not been defined. Barnier thus has a two-level barrier. Even if the EU could be prevailed upon to drop relative stability (which is doubtful), the completely opaque nature of what the British actually want, by way of quota allocation, would preclude any agreement.

This is, of course, why Barnier is, with increasing persistence, demanding legal texts form the UK negotiators. At the moment, he is being asked to contemplate accepting a pig in a poke, something his mandate would never allow him to do, and something that the Member States and the European Parliament would never approve if he did.

But now, it seems, "Team UK" is upping the ante, with Johnson seeking – or so we are told – to double UK quotas.

Actually, the terminology here is a little loose, as the sizes of the quotas, under the current system, depend on the size of the TACs. If the TACs drops, then the quotas will also drop, and vice versa. But, if Johnson is demanding to double up catches – and is delinking them from the TACs – then that could disadvantage other national fleets.

The EU seems to have done some sums, and is estimating that this could lead to a 31 percent contraction in Member State fishing fleets, with a serious impact on some coastal communities.

In the UK's Celtic Sea waters, for instance, British boats are allowed only 10 percent of the haddock, and French fishermen take 66 percent. In the Channel, EU-flagged boats take 91 percent of cod. In the North Sea, British boats take just 4 percent of sole.

If the UK was adopting "zonal attachment", the net increase in some areas could be very much higher, although without agreed methodology, it would be difficult to specify by how much.

All of this has the predictability of a contest between a rock and a hard place. Politically, neither side can back down completely from their entrenched positions, and there would have to be some imaginative compromise to make things work. As it is, neither side seems to be in that market for new ideas.

Unsurprisingly, the impasse is adding to growing pessimism on both sides about the crucial negotiating round next week. We are told that senior Downing Street figures put the chances of a deal at 30 to 40 percent. But, with Johnson adding fuel to the fire, it is unlikely to be that high.

Barnier, in fact, has already nailed his colours to the mast, stating that without a fishing agreement, there will be no trade deal. A Brussels source says that he cannot budge on anything while this stays on the table. "He would be crucified".

Given that each side is tied by its own political imperatives, it is hard to see whether either will "blink" at the eleventh hour. But even if the current headline problem on fisheries were to be solved, there are other which could emerge to take their place.

The question of negotiation frequency has yet to be settled, as to whether there are annual negotiations as the British want, or multi-annual as the Europeans prefer. That might not be a deal breaker but we're not even in a position where this can be tested.

In this hothouse atmosphere, one thing that has not been properly explored is the issue of enforcement. Short of a complete breakdown of talks – which is on the cards – EU-flagged vessels will be allowed onto British waters, but these will not necessarily be landing their catches in British ports. We will, therefore, be reliant on EU and Member States for monitoring catch records and other enforcement measures.

Without an equitable deal, it is unlikely that we could rely on the full cooperation of our neighbours – we hardly get it now. But if enforcement was wound down from its current levels, British fish stocks could be affected when catch limits are poorly enforced.

On the other hand, if EU flagged vessels are excluded, not only will British vessels be excluded from landing catches in EU Member State ports, we can expect tariffs to be imposed on any fish or fish products of UK origin. It is in our general interest, therefore, to have an equitable deal with the EU. Without one, everybody suffers.

This is the most remarkable thing about this situation. No-deal is a zero-sum game, even without the risk of a trade agreement being ruled out. It hardly seems to be the brightest of strategies for Johnson to antagonise EU negotiators at this late stage.

But then, if it wasn't fishing, it would be something else, such as state aid – and behind that there are governance issues. Beyond even that, there is still plenty of room for disagreement on issues which have scarcely been touched.

It seems, though, that Johnson actually believes that a no-deal scenario might be better than compromise, and its quite prepared to go to the wire without making any attempt to secure a settlement.

Quite a while ago, we were talking about the possibilities of an "accidental" no-deal, with this happening simply because neither side knew how to stop it – or wanted to. We now appear to be revisiting this territory, ending up with something that no-one wants.

We now have less than two months to find out if that if that is so, barring last-minute extensions if the EU goes the last mile in an attempt to secure a deal. At the moment, though, it is very hard to see how that can happen.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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