UK accuses EU of 'wishful thinking' over Brexit fishing deal

James Crisp
Boris Johnson aboard a Scottish trawler in September last year.  - AFP

Boris Johnson’s spokesman accused the European Union of “wishful thinking” on Tuesday as he ruled out any compromise over fishing rights after the Brexit transition period. 

UK and EU officials will hold difficult online negotiations over access to British fishing waters on Wednesday in the fourth round of the Brexit trade talks, which ends on Friday. 

Both sides called on the other to drop their red lines over fishing after the last round of talks ended in bad-tempered recrimination.

EU sources said this week they expected British negotiators to fold on their red lines over fishing and the level playing field guarantees if Brussels was to hint at a willingness to compromise. 

“This is wishful thinking by the EU. We have always been clear there is no question of splitting the difference on level-playing field or fish,” the prime minister’s spokesman said. 

“We aren’t compromising on this because our position on this is fundamental to our status as an independent, sovereign country. Any agreement has to deal with this reality.”

Michel Barnier has said a “balanced” fisheries agreement is a precondition for a trade agreement. The EU wants a long term status quo deal of reciprocal access to waters “under existing conditions”, which will be part of the free trade deal. 

Britain wants the fisheries agreement to be separate to the trade deal with annual negotiations over access and fishing opportunities. It also wants fishing opportunities to be calculated on the basis of zonal attachment, a method that reflects where fish currently are. 

The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is based on historic catch patterns dating back decades but more fish have now moved into UK waters because of climate change. 

“We have set out what we are looking for,” Mr Johnson’s spokesman said, “What we can’t do is agree to any EU demands to give away on our rights as an independent state.”

David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator said last week he was pessimistic about meeting an aspirational July deadline to finalise the fishing deal and ruled out any compromise involving an EU offer of better terms for UK financial services in return for access to British waters

Michel Barnier is at odds with David Frost, his UK counterpart.  - Bloomberg

The UK fishing industry warned the British government not to bow to EU demands on Tuesday, despite the threat of blockades by French fisherman.

"There must be no concessions and access to fishing waters, other than those granted through annual negotiations, as an independent coastal state," said Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.

Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said changing the way fishing shares were distributed would draw retaliation from French fishermen.

"If there's any change to that [...] or any other aspect that affects French fishermen, as day follows night there will be blockades. They've done it for much less in the past," he said.

"I think there will be a reaction in France by the fishermen. I think that's just the nature of the beast that we're dealing with. That's not a reason not to do what we're doing."  

The UK fishing industry, unlike many other businesses, is adamant that the Brexit transition period must not be extended. The deadline for any request for a delay of up to two years is July. 

If the deadlocked trade negotiations cannot be finalised by the end of the year, unless transition is extended, the UK and EU will be forced to trade on less lucrative WTO terms. 

If the UK extended transition to buy time for more trade negotiations, which Downing Street has repeatedly refused to do, the UK would remain part of the Common Fisheries Policy. 

“It's absolutely key that we leave the Common Fisheries Policy at the end of this year. And there is no reason why that shouldn't be the case,” said Ms Macdonald.