Fishing Lines

“Teach all men to fish, but first teach all men to be fair. Take less, give more. Give more of yourself, take less from the world. Nobody owes you anything, you owe the world everything.” – Suzy Kassem

A political declaration has been published jointly by the UK Government and EU which aims to take the first small steps along the very long road between where we are right now with the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement out to the final trade deal and future relationship between the UK and EU beyond the expected transition period post March 2019.

Others will go through the whole thing in detail with far more competence than I can manage. I particularly recommend Ian Dunt’s Twitter thread here.

I do want to comment on one are in particular because it has already caused more than a bit of a fight up here in Scotland and as it does a good job of highlighting the political divisions involved in Brexit in certain interesting ways. Let’s discuss fishing.


The UK/Iceland “Cod Wars”: The UK is no stranger to getting into a fight over fish

The European Union operates what’s known as a Common Fisheries Policy. It’s actually one of the very few areas that where the EU does demand absolute collectivity over the domestic policy of member states. Any changes to the policy must be approved by a “Qualified Majority” vote by the EU members.

The primary reason for this approach is for conservation reasons. Fish are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation and are also dependent on limited habitats which can change depending on the stage of their lifecycle or local climate. As fish are not exactly known for complying with passport regulations, they tend to roam between the territories of nation states without much regard to the politics between them. These factors mean that there is the potential for a “tragedy of the commons” whereby one greedy nation could strip its local seabed bare and collapse fish stocks in a way that directly affects the stocks in neighbouring countries and therefore has negative impacts on their economy too.

The UK has had a fairly fraught relationship with the CFP. As one of the major nations with an Atlantic seaboard, the UK obviously has a somewhat higher stake with regard to the fish there than, say, Austria and the idea of the EU “dictating” policy to the UK on fishing has never really sat well – no matter the intentions of the policy.

The CFP has also played a significant role in Scottish politics too. Most of the UK’s Atlantic seaboard is within Scotland’s territorial waters and therefore Scotland has been disproportionately impacted by CFP policies affecting the UK.

However, Scotland is not an EU member state and so our representation in the EU has been dealt with solely by the UK – often with Scottish ministers not even being allowed to sit in the room and witness negotiations, never mind be allowed to take part.

With a conservationist aim and significant overfishing occurring, it was inevitable then that the CFP would result in a reduction of fishing catch allowed to UK fishers. With Scotland’s interests being represented only indirectly, it was also inevitable that the bulk of that negative impact would land on Scotland. Indeed, whilst the UK has an increased interest in fishing than some other countries in the EU by dint of owning more of the fishing grounds, the sector as an industry contributes to only a small proportion of the overall UK economy. A memo printed by the UK Government at the time but only declassified in 2000 read “In the wider UK context they [the fishermen] must be regarded as expendable.”

This goes a fair way to explaining why the CFP is not popular with major Scottish parties. The Conservatives see it as an affront to domestic politics and dislike the freedom of access given to “foreign” ships and the SNP regard it as not working for the interests of Scottish fishing.

There are other issues with CFP. It’s not clear that its conservation mission has been successful – fishing stocks are still declining – and the quota system it uses is counted in terms of landed catch so encourages the discarding of fish caught above a ship’s quota. This might be fine for the account books but if you’re allowed to land one fish but you catch ten, discarding nine fish still means ten dead fish, not one. This is something that the EU has been working on eliminating, but progress has been slow.

Another major issue is that whilst the EU as a whole controls the overall fishing quota for a country, it says little about how that quota is distributed within the country. The UK has been particularly bad at preventing inequalities in this respect and has arguably actively encouraged it. 45% of the UK’s fishing quota is controlled by just five families either directly or via their ownership of shares in other fishing companies.

This level of inequality makes Scotland’s land ownership inequality look positively egalitarian.

So to bring us up to Brexit, we look at the declaration published today which states


Translation: The UK and EU will form a new treaty, essentially the UK will leave the CFP but then form a new agreement whereby it abides by the CFP without being a member of it.

It’s no surprise that some of the Scottish conservatives are looking rather angry about this although David Mundell has again decided to not resign over the matter that he said he would resign over should it come to pass..which it has.

We’ll probably end up with some kind of trade deal down the line – perhaps modelled on the cooperative agreement signed between the EU and Norway (it turns out that “independent coastal states” too can, do and sometimes must “surrender sovereignty” and make deals). But don’t expect such a deal to come quickly or easily.

Going forward towards Scottish independence, this issue will cause a tangle in the nets at some point. As stated earlier, the SNP are also against the CFP as a policy but claim to be staunchly in favour of an independent Scotland being an EU member – which would require formal re-entry into the CFP.

There is an argument for “remain and reform” – and that’s certainly the position of the SNP as well as that of other parties like the Scottish Greens – but, personally, I see another possible future for SNP politics.

In Common Weal’s book “How to Start a New Country” we envisage that an independent Scotland would be out of the EU for at least some time post-independence and may need time to build or rebuild infrastructure in order to re-join the EU.

Add in to this the fact that opinions about independence membership and EU membership don’t precisely align and we get ourselves into the position that perhaps the most democratic solution would be for Scotland to apply to join EFTA upon independence (which could provide economic stability in the form of EEA membership) and then have a separate debate on Scotland’s future path, possibly resulting in another referendum on whether Scotland should apply to join the EU, remain in EFTA or leave both.

In such a case (and barring too much of a realignment of political parties post-independence) I could well expect the Greens and Lib Dems to advocate for EU membership. Labour to probably do the same, though with less enthusiasm, the Conservatives to advocate to leave EFTA and form a customs union with the UK and for the SNP to campaign to remain in EFTA. I don’t have a huge issue with parties taking any of these positions – that is their right to do so and our right as voters to pick the one that works best for us – but it’s not just on fishing that I look at the SNP as a party that would be more comfortable in EFTA than as EU members. Their policies seem to align them there and many of their members openly advocate for it . It seems really just to be the political weight of a manifesto position that is holding them to EU membership and a lack of political capital to formally change it (something that post-independence realignments would certainly allow).

And if this is the case. If an independent Scotland does end up committing to EFTA then it’s going to have to start making deals and arrangements with neighbouring countries over issues like fishing. Perhaps then the UK wouldn’t be the only one looking towards Norway for hints to how that could be done.

The Common Green logo comprising the words "The Common Green" above the Common Weal "balance" icon

5 thoughts on “Fishing Lines

  1. There is also the not so small matter of our large Remain vote. I voted Remain to try and stay in the EU. If the SNP are going to take us out of the EU and plonk us in EFTA without expressly asking us if that is okay then that would be a democratic outrage. So I do have a problem with the SNP advocating that and it explains their reticence to do so.

    If Scotgov had got its act together and allowed us to vote for indy in time before the UK actually left there have been indications from the EU Parliament that our membership would be essentially parked while we establish institutions to accord with the acquis in ways we can’t at the moment because they are reserved. We would not get the increase in MEPs or qualified majority voting etc but we would not Leave.

    But we have made absolutely no efforts to do so and in the last GE the SNP apparently went cold on Independence and Sturgeon has been coy about it since.


  2. Also ScotGov is going to have to get passports up and running pdq so we can establish our entitlements even if we are EFTA. Pointing to the self penned address panel will not, I fear, cut much ice at EU borders etc.


  3. “It seems really just to be the political weight of a manifesto position that is holding them to EU membership…”

    Well, that and the fact that the ‘Independence in Europe’ policy has been affirmed repeatedly and comprehensively by the party membership.. And the fact that Scottish voters persist in electing to government the party that explicitly favours ‘Independence in Europe’. And the fact that Scotland voted 62% Remain But if you disregard such democratic niceties…


  4. Excellent that this debate is starting. Leaving beside the moribund Conservatives and Unionist party many in the indy supporting sphere are also talking in terms of ‘betrayal’ etc. Its time for a much closer look at the CFP and time to realise that it is not all bad, and that we might have to live with it in the future.

    Clearly the damage was done in the 1970s, but it would be difficult to go back then.


  5. Pingback: Mission Expendable | The Common Green

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.