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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

What is it about fish and the British?

We are being told currently that agreement over fishing is one of the great stumbling blocks in our trade negotiations with The EU. But given that we import 65% of the fish we eat and that roughly 50% of fish caught by British fishermen is sold to The EU, will prove, in the words of The Guardian, in April 2018, to be a lose-lose situation for both Britain and The EU.

One would have thought, therefore, that a compromise, of value to both sides, could have been reached. So what are the stumbling blocks to such an agreement? Firstly, the view of British fishermen that the original treaty of 1973 dealt them a poor hand. Many go further and say Heath's Government betrayed their industry. This is because of The EU's Common Fisheries Policy, giving access to all EU members to all waters, outside of the 12 mile limit. Moreover, The EU sets quotas for the amount that can be caught. Another perennial gripe of our fishermen. Secondly, beyond dispute, is the fact that British waters hold the greatest potential catches of fish. These arguments have been caught up in the wider Leave argument that Britain should regain its sovereignty, which would include sovereignty over its waters, ie beyond the 12 mile limit and up to the 200 miles, the so called 'exclusive economic zone'. Where the 200 mile limit would bump up against EU waters at under 200 miles then a median line would be drawn. All this is covered by international law.

It is not only Britain which places part of its argument on sovereignty, for the French are doing likewise. President Macron has said that fishing will be treated as 'an essential economic interest for our country that must be defended'. And, it is not only France that has a problem with the negotiating stance of Britain, although it is the most vociferous. The Netherlands and Germany are equally concerned.

Will Britain endanger the entire trade negotiations over an industry that only employs 12,000 people? Surely, in a normal business world compromise is not only possible but highly desirable from everyone's point of view.

Historically in modern times, prior to The EU's Common Fisheries Policy, there was mutual agreement over fishing from at least the 18th century. Recently the Belgian Ambassador to The EU produced an historical document granting Flemish fishermen access to British waters forever from even further back in time. It was given by Charles II in thanks for help during his exile. Whether this document has legal weight today is unclear, yet what is crystal clear is the existence of mutual fishing rights prior to The EU. Around 1900, French fishermen peacefully fished in The Thames Estuary without causing an international incident.

In the worst case scenario, following a No-Deal Brexit, we could see blockades of ports and clashes in The Channel between rival fishermen. It all conjures up pictures of the three embarrassing Cod Wars we 'fought' with Iceland in the last century. All three of which, we should remember, ended in British climb downs. Add in to this painful scenario the actions taken at sea by The Home Office to halt asylum seekers in mid Channel, and you have a mounting situation at sea which is in no one's interests.

So why are we going to the wire over fish? When Queen Elizabeth I, in newly Protestant England, by a law of 1563 re-introduced and increased in number meat free days, a Catholic practice, she did so for solid reasons - not of theology, not of sovereignty per se, but to ensure that we had enough sailors ready in time of war. The majority of the sailors, for example, during The Armada Campaign were English fishermen.

So, again why? My own very personal take is that being an island people is our greatest defining characteristic. The sea is important to us. Shakespeare forever caught this in his memorable phrase' this precious jewel set in a silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall...'

Yet, in terms of the country's wellbeing, post Brexit, the question of agriculture is far more important to the nation than fishing. There seems little evidence of the Government addressing this issue in a positive way. In a manner, for example, addressed by the wartime Government of The Great War when, under the provisions of The Defence of The Realm Act, the Government commandeered land for the production of food and established an Agricultural Committee in every county with wide powers of enforcement for the turning of grazing land into arable land. 2.5m acres of land were so changed. Today the argument is far stronger, for not only do we need to produce more of our own food, post Brexit, in order to keep costs down and supplies constant, but in the interests of global warming we need urgently to cut back on livestock rearing and turn again to arable farming.

What will eventually happen is anyone's guess but a logical rather than an ideological approach would seem to neutral commentators the obvious way forward. However, enjoy your fish and chips from one of the 10,500 fish and chip shops across the country which serve 167 million such takeaways a year. But, also don't forget, much of this fish is bought in from Iceland (!) and Norway, and a great deal of what is British caught is not being caught in British waters.

I just wonder what Elizabeth I and William Cecil would have thought of our current negotiating position?

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