Don’t treat fishing in isolation

How Michael Gove’s proposal could give us less control of fisheries, not more

Theresa May’s speech on Brexit has created a scramble amongst British politicians and European leaders – that’s the Florence speech, not the coughing conference speech. The proposal of a two-year transitional period to help soften the bumpy ride ahead has been met with mixed reviews, even amongst the Cabinet. Today, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the environment, has demanded that fisheries is removed from any transition deal, opting for a hard break’ in 2019.

It is unclear at this point how the divisions within the Cabinet will resolve themselves, or even if there will be a transition deal at all. What is clear, however, is that attempting to remove a single issue from the Brexit negotiations is only superficially appealing and is based on a series of misunderstandings about the breadth of fisheries policy and the forces acting upon it.

By attempting to remove fisheries from a transition deal, Michael Gove is taking the stance that fisheries should be managed our way’ at the earliest possible opportunity. This is much too simplistic as for better or worse, the UK is not able to simply step away and fully control the impacts on mobile fish stocks. From a policy perspective, it may even be the case that the UK would have less control through this isolated approach. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations commented that The problem is that when we leave the EU we will not be part of the decision-making process that sets annual quotas. It would be a case of get what you’re given’ and that can’t work for fishing.”

Gove’s position is also based on a misunderstanding around how fisheries is likely to be linked to other issues, most notable access to, or membership of, the Single Market. The EU has made it clear in their communications that there will be no separating of access to fishing waters and access to markets for fish products. For the EU, this whole discussion is not a moot point.

The importance of market access cannot be overstated, so the EU position is certainly cause for concern. Currently more UK-caught fish is sold in the EU market than in the UK itself. For the fishing industry, especially the often forgotten processors and wholesalers in the supply chain, fishing must absolutely be a part of these negotiations.

By focusing on removing the UK from the Common Fisheries Policy, Gove is not only ignoring the importance of tariffs to UK fisheries, but a whole host of other issues. Immigration is a significant issue in fisheries, especially in the processing sector, and as a perishable product, decisions made around port inspections could potentially cripple UK fish exports to the EU. Simply put, a single policy area cannot be plucked out and dealt with in isolation, especially not one as complex and integrated as fisheries policy.

It would also be unwise to unravel fisheries policy at the earliest possible opportunity, even if we could. Figuring out how fisheries policy in the UK could or should be governed post-Brexit is still in the early stages. There are also issues with key policy dates when the two-year deadline for Article 50 expires. Many fish stocks are now growing in size and the Common Fisheries Policy has a hard deadline to end overfishing by 2020. Stepping out now, especially with nostalgic motivations for times past of severe overfishing, is dangerous and irresponsible. Similar deadlines are on the horizon for the end of fish discarding’ and the end of the EU subsidy fund.

Cabinet ministers are keen to be seen as securing a good standing for their portfolios in the Brexit negotiations. Attempting to remove an issue from the broader negotiations and deals is not the way forward. In areas of deep and necessary collaboration this is simple a concession of power, not a gain.

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