Boris Johnson’s government should beware of pinning an entire EU-UK trade deal on fisheries, the issue of energy is far more serious and important, writes Alexander Temerko.
Alexander Temerko is a global energy industry investor, Conservative party donor, and member of the Institute for Economic Affairs Advisory Council
With less than two months left until the transitional period ends and the UK’s separation from the EU becomes final, several issues are still aggravating and further complicating this already complex divorce. The fishing row is one of those family tiffs.
While we were part of the EU, all member states were able to benefit from marine resources under EU regulations. The closer we get to 1 January 2021, the more politicised the issue of fisheries becomes. It is a symbol of sovereignty for Brexit supporters and a major sticking point in the final agreement negotiations for countries with big fishing fleets, such as France.
Macron was unequivocal at the press conference after the EU Summit on 16 October, saying that “under no circumstance will our fishermen be sacrificed to Brexit”, underlining that the issue of fisheries was of the highest priority for France, and that if it was not resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, he would be prepared to block the energy agreement between the EU and the UK.
Boris Johnson, being the experienced fisherman that he is, has also signalled that fish and Brexit are inseparable, saying the EU “want[s] the continued ability to control our legislative freedom, our fisheries, in a way that is completely unacceptable to an independent country”.
However, the rhetoric from both sides does not change the fact that, without an agreement, British waters could become off-limits for continental fishing fleets while Britain’s seafood industry would lose access to the EU’s fish markets.
Both the UK and its European partners, therefore, have an interest in striking a deal and are currently making probably the most deliberate and mindful attempt to salvage and maintain a good relationship after the divorce.
I would also like to offer an economic perspective on this curiously political issue. The fishing industry accounts for a mere 0.08% of our Gross Domestic Product and contributes £1.4 billion per annum to the UK economy, while the energy trade with Europe exceeds 6% of our GDP and amounts to £126 billion yearly.
The fishing industry employs 12,000 people, while the energy sector supports 768,000 jobs.
Of course, sovereignty is a highly important issue, and we do want to regain control not only over borders, legislation, and immigration, but also over our resources, like fish. But is it worth sacrificing our energy sector and good-neighbourly relations over the comparatively small UK fishing industry?
The answer to this question is obvious for the business community, as well as all people of common sense in Europe, hoping to live together in prosperity and harmony – but this unfortunately does not yet appear to be the case for politicians.
It is one thing for the fisheries issue to be used as a negotiation tactic to place pressure and achieve compromise on both sides, but it is quite a different thing altogether if politicians really consider fisheries the kind of sovereignty issue worth sacrificing everything else for.
Fish should not turn into a power struggle
If the French president is so keen on British fish, then perhaps we should let him continue fishing in accordance with EU regulations – it won’t seriously harm us.
While understandably concerned about his country’s fishing industry and trying to settle business issues by political means, Macron is no enemy to our sovereignty, and fisheries certainly should not be a stumbling block in the UK’s relationship with Europe.
However, the issue of energy is far graver and should be our priority focus. Today, France is Europe’s main energy hub and has no plans to abandon this privileged position.
If the energy union/agreement that we have is broken, not only will the supply of gas and electricity from the EU be put at risk, but also the vast environmental programme that has been developed over the last decade – the one in which Britain is the undisputed champion and has set the highest environmental and pollution criteria – will be critically endangered.
It is on this programme that the future of coming generations depends for stability, security and health, far more than on agreeable fishing between generally agreeable European countries.
However, if we cannot achieve our target (and required) decarbonisation in line with our Net Zero carbon pledge, in the necessary drive to create new energy generation to power our nation’s growth, not only will it be bad for fish and other natural resources but it will harm people.
To die on the hill of fisheries would be the epitome of being penny-wise and pound-foolish; we must not let nationalistic fervour or perceived slights cloud our vision. It is not worth risking the current ambitious, progressive energy programme we have, and the environmental programme related to it, for the sake of sovereignty over fish.
The fish themselves, after all, are neither citizens of our country, nor even aware of the existence of Brexit, but rather beings and resources whose migration strongly depends on their warming environment. It is precisely that environment that we would protect by ensuring our energy sector is healthy, strong and secure.