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The UK fishing industry is worth £1.4 billion (Dh6.8 billion), employs some 24,000 and amounts to just 0.12 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product Image Credit: Getty Images

In a little over three weeks’ time, bureaucrats in Britain will be asked to do something they haven’t done before in their working lifetimes. For the past 47 years, the UK’s pen-pushers have zero experience negotiating free trade deals. And that’s what they’ll be expected to do with the Eurocrats from Brussels — and get it done within the 11 months between February 1 and December 31.

Over these past 47 years, Brussels’ Eurocrats have handled every trade negotiation between the European Union and every other significant trading partner who wanted ease of access to the 27 nations that collectively make up the world’s third-largest market with more than half a billion customers and consumers.

Simply put, those UK civil servants have one behemoth of a task to overcome in a very tight time frame. And in the big scheme of things, where the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be eager to have unfettered access to the EU’s skies, ports and financial services, there are going to be a few sacrificial lambs along the way.

One of the key arguments forwarded by Brexiteers for cutting ties with Brussels was the Common Fisheries Policy. It basically allowed the trawlers of Europe access to British waters, just as British trawlers were allowed access to the waters of Europe. Yes, there are quotas on the numbers and species that could be caught, but for the Brexiteers the argument, like most in their populist arsenal was simplistic — British boats in British waters.

For a nation whose national dish is fish and chips, the majority of fish eaten in the United Kingdom is imported. More than 80 per cent of the cod eaten in the country comes from beyond its waters — and almost 60 per cent of its haddock too

- Mick O'Reilly

But it’s a red herring.

The UK fishing industry is worth £1.4 billion (Dh6.8 billion), employs some 24,000 and amounts to just 0.12 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product. What’s more, 56 per cent of the fishing sector is based in Scotland — a territory that’s immune to Conservative rule and its belief in Brexit now, whatever the cost.

So ask yourself this question: Which would Johnson protect more — access to the EU’s financial sector and safeguarding 200,000 well-paying and high-profile jobs in and around London based on the City, trading, foreign exchange and banking; or British fishermen whose work is weather- and catch-dependent, poorly paying and based in coastal constituencies by their very nature far removed from London? For the European Union, keeping access to British waters is crucial. For the United Kingdom, Keeping access to the EU’s financial services is critical.

On the hook for a red herring

Irish Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Michael Creed says the European Union will “drive a hard bargain” and fishing rights will be “critically important” in the context of the free trade agreement. “We want access to UK waters,” he says. “We have ensured in the withdrawal agreement that fishing is linked with the broader trade negotiations, and that’s critically important, because we have asks here in terms of fishing: we want access to UK waters, Ireland does but so do any other member states with whom we forged an alliance.”

The thinking among fishery ministers from Ireland, France, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany is that the United Kingdom will have to cave in to its demands over fishing if it wants to benefit from vital European infrastructure, such as financial markets and its open skies agreement with the United States.

For a nation whose national dish is fish and chips, the majority of fish eaten in the United Kingdom is imported. More than 80 per cent of the cod eaten in the country comes from beyond its waters — and almost 60 per cent of its haddock too.

When those British fisherman haul in their nets, they contain a lot of herring, and more than 90 per cent of that is exported to the Netherlands and Norway. Those UK fishermen export 80 per cent of their total catches to the European Union markets — and that free trade agreement will have to ensure that continues. And the Brits themselves? More than 70 per cent of the fish on their plates is imported from the European Union too. That’s the situation with the offshore boats — those who trawl deeper waters. Closers to shore, it’s equally complex.

When it comes to inshore fishing, things such as scallops, crabs, shellfish and lobsters are the mainstay. These species are mostly quota free. But they are also species that are not in tune with the British consumer — crab and chips doesn’t quite have the same taste as cod and chips when Brits go to the fry shop for a fish supper.

Roughly 80 per cent of the inshore catch is sold on to France and Spain. They are markets that are only possible because of easy and quick access to the European Union. Now? That’s anyone’s guess, but UK fishermen will be on the hook when it comes to getting a quick free trade deal with Brussels.