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London flamed for lack of strategy after UK-Norway fish talks collapse

Published: in 🇪🇺🇪🇺European News🇪🇺🇪🇺 by .

The failure to strike a deal with Oslo puts the UK on the back foot in talks with the EU.

The U.K. is under renewed political pressure to reach a fishing deal with the EU after failing to secure agreements with Norway and other partners in the North Atlantic.

The collapse of negotiations on total annual catches with Norway this week has left part of the British fishing industry trembling with fury and the supertrawler Kirkella — which normally catches around 10 percent of all fish sold in the U.K.’s fish and chip shops — out of work for the rest of this year, together with a host of smaller boats. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had singled out British fishing as one of the industries that would reap the most benefits from Brexit. Although the U.K. government has a basic post-Brexit framework deal on fishing with Norway, it has failed to agree on annual numbers — and similar agreements are also missing with Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes. These are traditional partners, with Arctic cod fisheries of vital importance for Britain.

The snafu comes at the worst possible time, with local and Scottish elections on May 6 and throughout ongoing negotiations with the EU over catch limits for 2021. Fishing makes up less than 1 percent of the British economy, but carries great symbolic weight. 

Norway will now be able to continue to export its fish products to the U.K. tariff-free, while British fishing vessels are prevented from catching Arctic cod in Norwegian waters. Scottish pelagic fishermen, however, may be able to catch more mackerel in British waters after the exclusion of their Norwegian competitors. 

The lack of a deal could cost a few votes during next week’s local elections in Hull and its wider Humberside region, where fishing company UK Fisheries employed about 100 crewmen and indirectly supports many additional jobs in the supply chain. The company had invested £180 million in the area and was ready to invest a further £100 million, but that extra cash is now up in the air. The firm’s board will also have to consider the possibility of selling its Kirkella vessel, worth £50 million. 

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“This is a very black day for Britain,” said Jane Sandell, chief executive of UK Fisheries. “[Environment Secretary] George Eustice owes our crews and the Humberside region an explanation as to why Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] was unable even to maintain the rights we have had to fish in Norwegian waters for decades, never mind land the boasts of a ‘Brexit bonus,’ which has turned to disaster.”

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Association, said that the collapse of the talks with Norway may also have an impact in some Scottish constituencies where cod fishing is important, such as the North East and the Shetlands, but said the U.K. couldn’t accept a bad deal. “I’m sure the government does feel it has let the industry down in terms of the commitments it has made. The industry this year is in a very difficult position,” she said.

So, what went wrong? 

Defra said it had made a “fair offer” on access to U.K. waters and the exchange of fishing quotas, but concluded it wouldn’t receive a fair return from the Norwegians. London sought to address what it saw as an imbalanced arrangement under the previous EU-Norway agreement, which led to Norway landing about eight times more fish from British waters than the U.K. fished in Norwegian waters. 

Norway caught £249 million worth of fish in U.K. waters in 2019, while the U.K. caught £31 million wort of fish in Norwegian waters. In London’s view, anything similar to maintaining that situation would have been a failure. 

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When Norway refused to pay for access to U.K. waters with inward transfers of stocks from Norwegian waters, Britain concluded the two positions were too far apart for reaching a deal this year, Defra said. Those looking at the glass half-full point out that a no-deal situation means more British fish for British fishermen after removing Norwegian competitors.

David Henig, co-founder of the UK Trade Forum think tank, said it all comes down to a lack of an overall negotiating strategy.

“This provides some evidence that there is no overall strategy to U.K. negotiations and the problem is that this doesn’t get raised in parliament, so it’s very hard to understand what’s going on, but it’s clearly not what was promised,” he said. “There’s going to be a steady build-up of questions about U.K. negotiations, and so the government really needs to get its act together.”

Failure in talks has increased political pressure on Johnson’s government to reach a fishing deal with the EU for 2021. Much of the deal on fishing limits was agreed in the EU-U.K. trade talks, but both sides have held weekly virtual negotiations since January on the remaining issues. These include catch limits; specifications for fishing gear to protect fish stocks in the Celtic Sea; and how commercial fishing boats would count their catch against quotas.

As negotiators met Friday morning, an EU official said the bloc won’t be leaving the negotiating table but feared the U.K. might, setting its own catch limits unilaterally. This would upset the delicate balance of fish stocks in the North Sea, especially mackerel.

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“We don’t see a lot of impossible issues to resolve — we think there can be practical solutions,” the official said. “What makes the U.K. often stick to its guns is a matter of principle, it’s political. What we feel is that we prefer to have an agreement, because otherwise it would set a very bad precedent for the very sensitive negotiations on fishing opportunities that we face.” 

A Defra spokesperson said: “We have always been clear that we will only strike agreements if they are balanced, and in the interests of the U.K. fishing industry.”

This insight is from POLITICO’s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial email pro@politico.eu.

Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-norway-fish-talks-collapse-brexit-london/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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