With post-Brexit trade talks going down to the wire, French fishermen look set to pay the price of a “no deal” that will end nearly five decades of access to profitable British waters.
Nearly 30 percent of French fishing is carried out within the UK’s maritime zone – but on 31 December, when Britain leaves the Common Fisheries Policy, EU fleets will no longer enjoy equal access to those fishing grounds.
The absence of a trade deal will also be felt by the fishing industries of Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain and Ireland, who would have to redistribute their quotas in the event World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules take over.
But securing the rights of fisherfolk is a particularly sensitive issue in France, where vessels from Normandy and Brittany rely heavily on the English Channel and its wealth of fish stocks.
"For Brittany, there are 130 vessels who practise a significant part of their activity in British waters and who would be seriously affected by a ‘no deal’,” warned Jacques Doudet, of Brittany’s Regional Committee for Sea Fisheries and Marine Farming.
For trade, reverting to WTO rules means the implementation of customs duties, customs barriers and import quotas – a nightmare scenario for an industry that relies on moving fresh produce quickly.
For fishing activities, the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention would apply. This means the UK would have control over an “exclusive economic zone” up to 200 nautical miles off its shores.
There’s a catch, though. If Britain were to exclude most foreign fishing vessels from its waters, its own fishermen would probably receive the same treatment – making it hard for Britain to access parts of the Atlantic and elsewhere.
Plus the EU, which buys three-quarters of fish caught by British boats, would be unlikely to offer any tariff concessions – making it hard for British fishermen to sell their product.
Make or break
For Britain, the fisheries issue has become a symbol of the UK’s maritime sovereignty – which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said must be protected at all costs.
Because European fishing activity in British waters (worth €635 million a year) is eight times larger than the British equivalent in European waters (worth €110 million a year), fishing has become a bargaining chip for the UK in trade talks.
But despite having a perceived upper hand, London is struggling to regain exclusive control of its maritime zone – with EU negotiator Michel Barnier insisting that both sides must be given access to fishing opportunities.
"We are well aware that we are going to have to make an effort: this effort must be reasonable, it must preserve the fishing activities of the European Union," Barnier said this week.
“This requires reciprocal and stable access to the waters … as well as a fair distribution of quotas.”
While British media reports say France has hinted it is ready to give up some of its fishing rights in order to reach a trade deal, French media say the EU is readying itself for a “no deal” scenario – which would hit Britain hardest given most of its fishing production is exported to the European market anyway.
Plan B for EU fishermen
Faced with a lack of agreement, European authorities have set up a €5 billion fund to cushion the blow of Brexit. Diplomats told journalists that fisherman in particular would have access to this reserve.
France’s regional fisheries unions, however, say the country’s fishermen prefer to work rather than receive aid. They add they are holding out for a deal that would retain their access to the English Channel.
“Negotiations are still underway, and it is still too early to say that there will not be an agreement," said Daudet. "It cannot be ruled out that they will succeed even at the last minute. Anything is possible.”
Even with talks at breaking point, each side is still urging the other to relax its position on fishing. The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, estimates there's just over a week left to hammer out a deal.
“If there's no major breakthrough next week, I think we'll be in real trouble and the focus will be on preparing a 'no deal' and all the consequences that entails," he added.