Fishing has always been a totemic Brexit issue, with access to waters – and securing a greater share of fish for UK boats – held up as leading reasons to “take back control”. Fishing’s political importance on both sides of the channel meant it was one of the last issues resolved in the UK-EU trade negotiations last year, so it is unsurprising that fish are the subject on an early post-Brexit bust-up. While this one may be on pause, for now, the terms of the post-Brexit UK-EU relationship means further rows, and not just on fish, will inevitably follow. Crucially, however, the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) also allows for far better ways to settle a falling-out than the posturing of the last week.
While economics is at the heart of the TCA, politics will inevitable shape how it works in practice – as it has with the fishing row. After UK and Jersey authorities refused to grant fishing licenses to a small number of French vessels on the grounds that they haven’t provided sufficient proof of historic fishing activity to meet the TCA’s conditions, the French government – no doubt with one eye on the presidential elections next year – fought back strongly.
With the EU Commission having decided not to raise a formal dispute complaint against the UK, France threatened to prevent British vessels landing in France and to ramp up checks on goods imported from Great Britain if the UK didn’t grant more licenses by 2 November. It also raised the prospect of targeting others areas covered by bilateral agreements – such as cutting off electricity supplies to Jersey. In return, foreign secretary Liz Truss warned that the UK would not “roll over in the face of these threats” and threatened legal action.
Given the UK government’s calls for flexibility in the application of EU rules under the Northern Ireland Protocol, there is more than hint of hypocrisy to its apparent insistence on strict application of fishing rules. But this won’t be the last time that the UK and the EU – or a member state– find themselves at loggerheads over the terms of the post-Brexit relationship.
There is a real risk that the UK-EU relationship becomes defined by regular clashes and tit-for-tat retaliation – with minor disagreements escalating into major political fallouts.
Three factors heighten this risk. First, the TCA includes a range of time-limited provisions and review clauses in areas like fish and energy, any of which could trigger a new dispute. Second, the UK’s plans to revisit and reform regulation inherited from the EU in areas like GM foods could trigger the TCA’s level playing field provisions, which may see the EU slap tariffs on the UK. Third, the UK–EU relationship is a complex mesh that goes well beyond the TCA. It encompasses cooperation on security, counterterrorism and the climate. In areas such as data and financial services, it relies on unilateral decisions – rather than treaties – that could be withdrawn at any time. This increases the scope for things to go wrong and worsens the consequences if they do.
The TCA contains the tools to resolve rows without resorting to political grandstanding – with a complex governance framework covering areas like fisheries, customs and energy, backed by formal dispute resolution processes based on consultation and independent arbitration.
For these to work, both sides need to cooperate. From fishing licences to rules of origin, Brexit has created new rules for people travelling and doing business between the UK and the EU. The UK and the EU must implement the new agreement in good faith This means seeking to make it work and ensuring that both parties’ rights are respected, rather than applying rules in a way that gives the impression that one side is rowing back on its promises. When disputes inevitably arise, both sides need to try and resolve them at a technical level – not jump straight to adversarial tactics where prime ministers and presidents are involved. Endless disputes will inevitably distract leaders’ attention from bigger issues such as climate change and global security, and make co-operation harder across the board.
The dispute over fish has been a lesson in how not to do things. While it may have subsided for now – it is only a matter of time before tensions flare up again, not least over the stalled negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. But while the UK has been happy to emphasise the importance of good faith in the row over fish, it will soon need to show it is just as committed when it comes to Northern Ireland.