Brexit talks go the wire in struggle for a deal
Fisheries is toughest obstacle
Efforts were still being made to reach a Brexit trade deal before 31 December as Fishing News went to press, but while there had been some progress, there were still wide gaps last week on fisheries and regulatory alignment, reports Tim Oliver.
Briefing MEPs last Wednesday (16 December), Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that EU and UK negotiators were working ‘day and night’, but that the two sides were ‘so close and yet so far away from each other’.
She said that all but the most difficult issues had been resolved, but it was still far from certain that there would be a deal.
Fisheries, in particular, remained a very tough issue, and the gap might not be surmountable. “On fisheries, the discussion is still very difficult,” said Ursula von der Leyen.
“We do not question the UK’s sovereignty on its own waters, but we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen. And in all honesty, it sometimes feels that we will not be able to resolve this question, but we must continue to try finding a solution.”
She told MEPs: “As things stand, I cannot tell you whether there will be a deal or not. But I can tell you that there is a path to an agreement now. The path may be very narrow, but it is there, and it is therefore our responsibility to continue trying.
“The good news is that we have found a way forward on most issues. But this is now a case of us being so close and yet being so far away from each other because two issues remain outstanding – the level playing field and the fisheries.”
She said negotiators were still deadlocked over how to address instances where the EU and UK might diverge in their regulatory regimes in the future.
“On the level playing field, our aim is simply to ensure fair competition on our own market – very simple,” said the Commission president, adding that there had been some progress.
She acknowledged that time was running extremely short, and that MEPs would have very little time to scrutinise any agreement.
Downing Street said that if a deal was agreed, a Commons vote could be held as soon as Monday (21 December), although the week between Christmas and New Year was more likely. The government has drafted plans to fast-track legislation through parliament, including by sitting for longer hours.
The lack of a Brexit deal means that fishermen face total uncertainty over their fishing opportunities in 2021. The normal December Council mechanism for setting TACs is now irrelevant as far as UK fishermen are concerned.
This year’s Council was held last week and DEFRA did not attend, even on an observer basis. The Commission was only able to set TACs for those stocks which it controls exclusively in its own waters. Fisheries ministers agreed to set interim TACs for the first quarter of 2021 based on a rollover of 25% of the 2020 TACs for most stocks.
Most stocks are managed on a shared basis, and normally at this time of year there would be trilateral and bilateral negotiations between coastal states to set TACs on jointly managed stocks.
NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas said: “It is unclear at this stage whether there will be bilateral UK-EU negotiations to fix TACs for shared stocks for 2021, or whether we will move straight to autonomous quotas, set by each side, which will remain in place until there is an agreement.
“Norway, as a major player in the North Sea, has been waiting patiently for the UK and the EU to settle their differences and for talks to begin. What is clear is that mutual access to fish in each other’s waters will be part of that agreement, and not an automatic right.”
He said there would be an agreement between the UK and the EU on fish ‘sometime’, and that there is a legal obligation on countries that share stocks to negotiate, and to manage fish stocks sustainably.
The MMO said that if there is a no-deal Brexit, non-UK-registered vessels will no longer be permitted to fish in UK waters, and UK-registered vessels will not be allowed to fish outside UK waters.
UK-registered vessels may have their licences varied to cover where they can fish, depending on the outcome of negotiations on a fisheries agreement.
Annual negotiations with Norway, Faroes and the EU to agree TACs for 2021 are already underway and will continue this month, according to the MMO. If arrangements are not agreed between coastal states, provisional TACs may be set for a period of time.
But Norwegian fisheries minister Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen said that, if agreements with the UK and EU are not in place by 1 January, ‘we will not open Norway’s economic zone for fishermen from the EU and the UK – nor can we expect Norwegian fishermen to have access to their zones’. He added: “That is why I now urge the EU and the UK to come to the negotiating table.”
He added that Norway is ready to start negotiations, but ‘we need clarification soon’.