Intensive Brexit talks were taking place just before Christmas as the UK and EU ramped up efforts to secure a deal before the deadline of 31 December, reports Tim Oliver.
Some sources anticipated that a deal could be reached before Christmas, but others saw the talks continuing right to the deadline.
Fisheries remained the big sticking point, as the UK proposed a compromise that EU negotiator Michel Barnier rejected, following pressure from EU fishing states, notably France and Denmark.
A 35% cut in EU
It was reported that Boris Johnson and EU president Ursula von der Leyen had taken over the negotiations, and had held a series of phone calls in the run-up to Christmas, with other EU leaders including President Macron of France being closely involved.
Fishing News understands that the UK tabled a compromise on fisheries that would allow the EU to keep about two-thirds of the value of the fish that EU boats now catch in UK waters, which are worth about £580m.
The plan would see a 35% cut in EU catches phased in over five years. The five-year transition period proposal was a compromise between the three years the UK had reportedly been seeking and the seven years the EU had been demanding. The catch cut proposals were a compromise between the 60% cuts the UK wanted and the 25% the EU had apparently put forward
A further element of the plan was that if EU quota shares were reduced from the levels agreed at the end of the transition, an independent arbitration panel would determine the economic cost of that loss to the EU and allow the EU to levy tariffs in other areas beyond fishing to compensate EU fishermen.
Downing Street refused to confirm that the plan was a definite proposal.
But Michel Barnier rejected the plan, and told EU ambassadors he was sticking to his demand that the EU should keep 75% of the fish the EU catches in UK waters. He told EU ambassadors that the UK compromise was ‘unacceptable’.
He said the plan did not include pelagic stocks, which would mean the real offer would entail a 60% cut in the value of the EU catch in UK waters. Under this plan, pelagic stocks would be managed by the coastal states – i.e. the UK, the EU, Norway, Iceland and Faroe.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation responded to reports of the proposed plan with a statement saying that if correct, it would be a betrayal of the promises made to the industry.
The federation said: “Amid all the rumours and speculation, we have been clear from the outset that the industry only seeks the same sorts of arrangements that the EU has with other coastal states – full control of access to our waters, fairer quota shares based on zonal attachment and annual negotiations on access and fishing opportunities – no more and no less than the EU has with others.
“If any of these ‘offers’ are accurate, then in terms of percentages and length of transition period, they are utterly derisory and totally unacceptable to the Scottish fishing fleet. Repatriating only 35% of the EU’s landings to the UK phased in over a period of several years would be a terrible deal for the fishing industry.
“And you cannot have sovereign control over your fishing waters with one hand tied behind your back. The UK would be a coastal state in name only. This is not what we were promised, and only last week the prime minister made the same point at Prime Minister’s Questions.
“If this is indeed what is on the table, then the prime minister and his government will have completely betrayed the promises they have made repeatedly, in public and in private, to our industry.”
The NFFO said it would not comment on the reports. It said that rumours of what was happening earlier in the negotiations had been ‘wildly inaccurate’, and that it would wait for ‘the definitive briefing from the UK negotiators, or the prime minister, before making comment’.
But the federation said that ‘in these fraught and uncertain times’ it was worth reiterating what was at stake:
- Negotiated, not automatic, rights over access to fish in UK waters
- Annual fisheries agreements that set TACs, and agree quota shares and access arrangements and, where mutually beneficial, quota exchanges
- An exclusive 12-mile limit to protect our inshore fisheries
- A rebalancing of quota shares to reflect the resources in UK waters
- Frictionless access to markets, to the extent that this can be achieved without surrendering sovereign fishing rights.
“These rights are only those that any self-respecting coastal state which shares stocks with a neighbouring country enjoys. It is only the distorting effect of the CFP over the last 40 years that means the gulf that has now to be crossed is so wide,” said the federation.
“Those objectives have been shared by the government throughout the negotiations, and the extent to which they are reflected in a final deal – and the assurances given – will be the measure against which the deal will be judged.”
Christmas Eve was seen as the last date on which a trade deal could be agreed for it to come into force by 1 January.
The EU parliament said it could not ratify any deal by this late date, so if a deal were agreed, it would probably come into force on 1 January on a provisional basis.
UK MPs were on standby to be recalled from the parliamentary Christmas break to ratify any deal.
EU states fear ‘biggest catastrophe of our time’
EU fishing states have urged EU negotiator Michel Barnier to stand firm on the tough fisheries mandate that member states had given him, reports Tim Oliver.
They said that the Brexit trade talks were heading for ‘potentially the single biggest and most catastrophic setback of our time’.
Their call came as Brexit talks neared the endgame and a no-deal Brexit looked likely.
The European Fisheries Alliance (EUFA) said that four years of hard work to ensure fisheries remained at the heart of the Brexit talks were in serious jeopardy.
EUFA chairman Gerard van Balsfoort said: “The shape of a deal, as it currently stands, would give a huge blow to the European seafood sector, which is made up of more than 18,000 fishermen and 3,500 vessels with an annual turnover of €20.7bn.
“Our industry is literally and metaphorically on the brink, and in spite of repeated promises made, we are in the throes of being sold down the river with the offer made to the UK by the European Commission – the more so when the fisheries negotiations with the UK are intended to start all over again after only six or seven years.
“The one thing we wanted to avoid was a no-deal situation in the interests of all our fishermen, but the deal which is now being proposed is every bit as bad. We are looking at vicious and unprecedented cuts on a wide range of stocks including our pelagic, shellfish and whitefish sectors.
“This is galling, and if the European Commission doesn’t stand up for its fishermen and honour its written agreement made during the arduous Brexit negotiations, it could spell the death knell for large parts of an industry which has contributed so much to coastal communities across nine EU states. Our fishermen must be protected as they risk life and limb to provide fresh food in the most unforgiving environment on earth.
“While our industry has faced down many serious challenges down through the years and has proven itself to be resilient, versatile and determined, this is a desperate slap in the face and potentially the single biggest and most catastrophic setback of our time.”
Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) chief executive Sean O’Donoghue said that the deal as it currently stood would ‘spell the ruination of the Irish seafood sector, which directly supports more than 16,000 jobs and is worth more than €1.2bn annually to the Irish economy’.
Leading figures in the Danish Fishermen’s Association and the Danish Pelagic PO also expressed fears they were about to be sold out, reported Fiskerforum.
Svend-Erik Andersen, chairman of the Danish Fishermen’s Association, said: “This is a deeply worrying development that could cost many Danish jobs in the fishing industry and in secondary industries. It looks like it will be a disaster for Denmark.”
Danish fishermen’s leaders would prefer to see an agreement that does not include fisheries at all, rather than a bad agreement in which an excessively high price is paid.
Fridi Magnusen, chairman of the Danish Pelagic PO, said they were being ‘thrown to the sharks’.
“This will cost fishing vessels and jobs ashore. It’s not possible to calculate the consequences for the Danish fishing industry. We are better off without an agreement than with an EU sellout like this,” he said.