20 March 2018

The understandable anger of British fishermen


When the fisheries-rich countries of the North Atlantic applied to join the EEC in the early 1970s, it was an opportunity for ministers in Brussels that was too good to miss.

To the nervous embarrassment of the Dutch, a last minute deal was pushed through that bolted the resources of national fishing grounds onto the scanty treaty provisions that covered trade in fish produce.

It was a shoddy fix and, it turned out, a major scandal at least for one of the applicant states. Norway’s fisheries minister resigned in protest, and the Norwegians voted against accession.

But the UK did not. In 1973, the country joined the Brussels club. Ted Heath’s people accepted the stitch up as a political price worth paying – one of many, it might be said. And thus was created the original sin behind UK membership.

In due course, the arrangement would become more formally entrenched within Community systems as the Common Fisheries Policy. Dignifying the dodgy dossier with a group-hug name did not add to its charm. It would in due course develop into a Brechtian mechanism that has long disgraced the definition of ecological management.

In 2007 alone, just in the North Sea, 23,600 tonnes of cod, 31,048 of hake, and 6,000 of whiting were discarded. To help visualise that, that’s getting on for the displacement tonnage of one of our new aircraft carriers.

The impact of the Common Fisheries Policy on the British fleet was disastrous. EU fishing grants went into upgrading the Iberian fleets, giving them extra horsepower and storage space. Hundreds of millions in EU development aid went into upgrading Spanish ports and facilities.

Meanwhile money that went into the UK fleet was predominantly to help buy up the increasingly ageing vessels and scrap them. And of course, when we talk about EU money, as a net donor state, we are ultimately talking about UK taxpayers funding this dystopian subvention.

Even then, worse prospects loomed. The writ of the CFP ran into those waters stretching beyond the 6 and 12 mile limits. But even inshore fishing was not safe, safeguarded only be means of a derogation. Every ten years, it has had to be renegotiated. As a test case in 1983 proved, failure to extend this means that all national waters default to common EU control. Bargaining in such conditions is a surefire way of having to regularly barter away your chips in order to keep your fish.

Of this set up it need merely be remarked that when Norway’s pro-EU government tried a second time to bring the country in, the voters again rejected the proposal. True to form there had been a second attempt at a stitch up, with two EU countries quite openly blackmailing Oslo into giving up even more access to their fishing grounds in exchange for lifting a threatened accession veto.

This, then, is the background to the action being taken this week by fishermen protesting about the way the Brexit negotiations are going. Some observers might, with some justification, point to the fact that the agreement reached so far has been on the transition deal only, and does not demonstrate a clear marker on where the end agreement will actually be.

Others suggest, ruefully, that in any agreement that entailed major elements of transition, across such a vista of fields, it was inevitable that fisheries would be bolted on to any comprehensive deal. There is considerable validity in these points.

But the fact remains that the fishing community has been persistently abandoned – one is tempted to say betrayed – by both Whitehall and Westminster over the past decades.

It has come in a range of forms, from MAFF officials prosecuting a fisherman who had landed a literal handful of surplus-to-quota fish for a cat, to the hand-wringing ministerial statements that would follow Brussels quota sessions.

There are plenty of reasons why fishermen should distrust those very officials who are negotiating Brexit on their behalf, and more widely all the political parties in Westminster today. One is almost forced into peculiar Marxist dialectics about a form of class abuse that has been going on with this industry, that the SW1 bubble has for so long dismissed as expendable.

There have been exceptions. The Conservative grassroots have long got it, and loudly support this long-abused industry. Sir Richard Body, who recently has sadly passed away, even resigned the whip in the days of the John Major government in protest as to how his fishing constituents were treated. There was even a period on the front bench where several successive opposition fisheries spokesmen pursued the repatriation of policy. But Cameronism brought that to an end.

All this means historically, fishermen have every right to distrust politicians and civil servants. Unfortunately, what has recently been said about future arrangements has fallen short of categoric assurances. Even Boris Johnson’s assertion, during his contribution to the Road to Brexit speeches, came caveated: “We will be able, if we so choose, to fish our own fish.” The wording is telling; the decision to push in even a passing reference may itself have been a pointed bit of elbowing.

There is clearly a battle going on within government. So when commentators wonder why fishermen are getting so much attention of late, the answer really is quite simple. Their cause is just, and addressing it is decades overdue. And when others also look agog at why trawlermen are still campaigning when the Brexit referendum was won, the answer isn’t complicated. It’s because successive governments have each in turn let them down in the past.

Brexit is all about opportunity. That applies as much to international trade as it does to cutting red tape or, here, taking back control of the UK’s waters for the benefit of the UK’s fishermen. It is not enough to have a mandate: the Cabinet Office civil servants in the Oliver Robbins team also need clear instruction.

If they don’t, and Whitehall continues along its traditional route of viewing our coastal communities as expendable in a way no other EU state does, the damage will be enduring. Our ailing fishing industry will drown. And both the credibility and the honour of the Conservative party will be sleeping with the fishes.

Dr Lee Rotherham is Director of the Red Cell think tank, and is a former adviser to the Conservative front bench on fisheries.