Boris Johnson has been warned not to “sacrifice” the fishing industry, as Brexit trade negotiations enter their final days.
Senior industry figures are urging the prime minister not to have a “Ted Heath moment” and abandon the sector in search of a wider trade agreement with the EU.
Talks between UK and EU negotiators on fisheries have so far failed to yield any progress, with both teams still diametrically opposed in their demands.
The UK’s position is that 80% of the fish in British waters should be reserved for UK-based fishing vessels.
But the EU’s current offer would allow only the repatriation of between 10% and 20% of stocks, a figure described as “derisory” by government officials.
In a bid to break the deadlock, David Frost’s negotiating team proposed an upfront transfer of €300m in the value of white fish and prawn quota currently caught by European vessels in UK waters ahead of a three-year phasing-in period.
After that, access by EU boats would hinge on an annual negotiation.
The EU has rejected this, arguing for a 10-year phasing-in period, at which point only 18% of the value of fish caught in UK waters will be transferred.
‘A lot of speculation…’
Barrie Deas, the CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, spoke out against a lengthy “phasing-in period”.
He said: “The UK fishing industry has been tied into extremely disadvantageous terms for 40 years, so there’s an understandable reluctance tied into anything that feels like the common fisheries policy which we’re just about to leave.”
“I think there’s been a lot of speculation but my understanding is that nothing’s been agreed on fishing and the talks continue,” he added.
“I think there’s been a lot of briefing by the EU side along the lines of how they would like these things to turn out.
“What we do know is that if there’s going to be a deal that will give access to EU fleets to fish in UK waters, it will have to be linked to the issue of quota shares.
“Rebalancing quota shares is a priority for the UK.”
Mr Deas urged Mr Johnson to stick by the industry in these final days of talks, saying: “This issue has become emblematic of Brexit and I think the prime minister knows that in some sense this is his Ted Heath moment.
“Is the fishing industry going to be sacrificed again or are we going to redress the imbalances that were baked into the common fisheries policy right from the start?”
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) has also sought to remind the prime minister of past pledges.
SFF chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said: “The prime minister and Michael Gove have given a series of undertakings to the industry that the UK will restore sovereignty over UK waters and control who gets to fish for what, where and when.
“That simple principle, which is the legal norm for coastal states, is under threat from the EU’s intransigence.
“Acceptance of any deal that only delivers pretend sovereignty will be a wholesale betrayal of the industry that the prime minister has promised to support.”
She added: “The EU also needs to realise that trade in fish between them and the UK is in balance and that their consumers want to eat the fish from our seas. But fishing opportunities in each other’s waters is far from fair. That is the wrong that has to be put right.”
Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt, speaking in the Commons on Monday evening, reiterated that the UK Government will not compromise on fishing as part of the Brexit trade talks.
She told MPs: “We are a sovereign nation, these are our waters, we have plans for a resurgence of these industries.
“The prime minister will not compromise.”