This article was first published on The Commentator.
One of the most underestimated opportunities for this country post-Brexit is the fact we will automatically assume full control over our waters, extending in some places to 200 miles out from the shore.
It was only in the 1980s that the idea of a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone become part of international law – after our accession to the EEC, so Britain has never enjoyed the full benefits of its own waters.
Our fisheries have been dealt an especially raw deal by our EU membership. Though we are entitled to 30 percent of the EU’s fishing quota, this is concentrated in low-value fish – leaving more lucrative stocks to other EU Member States.
Since former Prime Minister Edward Heath considered fishing expendable when negotiating our accession to the EEC in the 1970s, our fishermen have been assigned appallingly low quotas.
In the EU, we are assigned considerably lower quotas than would be proportionate to the extent of our Exclusive Economic Zone. In the Celtic Sea and English Channel area, for example, we are only entitled to 23 percent of the overall catch, even though outside the EU we’d have exclusive rights to much more than 23 percent of the waters there.
It is a woefully unfair situation, made even worse by the fact EU-owned vessels registered under the UK flag can also fish part of the British quota. One Dutch-owned ship, the Cornelis Vrolijk, is believed to account for almost a quarter of the English quota, and invariably lands its catch in the Netherlands, not in Britain.
Brexit is the remedy to these injustices. When we regain control of our Exclusive Economic Zone, we will be able to decide forourselves to what extent ships flying foreign flags can fish in our waters.
We will most likely be able to significantly boost the quota for our own fishermen, restoring prosperity to our fishing industry without increasing the overall quota, risking overfishing, and damaging the fish stocks in the sea. We will also be able to charge for the right for foreign fishermen to fish in our waters.
This would, of course, also allow the EU to regulate how much British ships can fish in EU waters, but since our Exclusive Economic Zone is among the largest in Europe, this trade-off would almost certainly be to our immense benefit.
We will also be able to represent ourselves in negotiations with the likes of Norway and Iceland over shared fish stocks, replacing the EU as a major player in these talks.
We will be able to end the likes of the Cornelis Vrolijk scandal, with foreign vessels flying British flags and taking part of our fishing quotas. We will be able to ensure ‘British’ vessels are actually British, and British fishing quotas actually belong to Britain.
In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government attempted to require British fishing vessels be at least 75 percent British-owned – but because it conflicted with EU law, in the infamous Factortame case, the courts struck down the legislation.
Post-Brexit, we would be able to either resurrect Thatcher’s legislation or implement something similar.
As is customary for the pro-EU media, however, far more has been made of the potential pitfalls for fishing post-Brexit, rather than these great opportunities. The House of Lords European Union Committee, for instance, has insisted British fisheries will need “continued market access” to the EU after Brexit.
They claimed the price for this zero-tariff access would be EU fishermen getting “more access to UK waters than some fishers would want”.
They argued this would be necessary because a large proportion of British fish is exported to the EU – but we should focus on getting control of the supply.
What benefit is there in it being somewhat easier to sell fish you are not allowed to catch in the first place? There is far more to be gained on the supply side than there is to be lost on the demand side.
The main fishing nations of north-western Europe – Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands – are all outside the EU. All have no problem exporting large amounts of fish to the EU and beyond, and all consider the Common Fisheries Policy a major reason for staying outside the EU.
They are certainly not queuing up to surrender their waters the way Britain did in the 1970s. Additionally, as an independent member of the WTO, we would be able to join other fishing powerhouses in pressing for a worldwide reduction in subsidies, tariffs, and other barriers to international trade in fisheries.
The Government must, therefore, hold strong in these negotiations. It must not surrender our rightful control over our waters, either for “continued market access” in fisheries, or to benefit some other industry, like financial services. The latter idea would be a stunning betrayal of the fishing communities who have long been harmed by our EU membership.
Brexit is an exciting opportunity for us to reclaim our sovereignty and restore our fishing industry, taking our place alongside Norway, Iceland, and the Faroes as a regional fishing powerhouse. On paper, Britain should have a thriving fishing industry to be proud of post-Brexit. As we Get Britain Out of the EU, let’s make this a reality.