This article was first published on BrexitCentral.
Of all the industries in this country, fishing is among those worst hit by our EU membership. The Common Fisheries Policy, which opens up almost all of our 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone to EU boats, has sent our fishing towns into a four-decade-long tailspin. It came as no surprise then, that last year fishing areas like Humberside, West Wales, Banff and Buchan, and Cornwall all voted for Brexit.
It is reassuring now to find new Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently announcing Britain will pull out of the 1964 London Fisheries Convention, which allowed EU vessels access to waters just 6-12 miles from our shores. During the General Election campaign, the Conservatives also committed to taking control of the entire 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone upon leaving the EU – and with an influx of new Scottish Conservative MPs representing areas of North East Scotland with large fishing industries, this campaign promise is likely to stay. The pro-Brexit DUP are also certain to insist on regaining control over our waters.
This will not be the first Government to attempt to protect our fishing industry. After all, the effect of the EU on our fisheries has been known for a long time. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s ministers sought to mitigate the effects of the Common Fisheries Policy by requiring all UK-registered fishing vessels to be owned either by resident British citizens, or by mostly British-owned companies.
This common-sense legislation – the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 – soon hit a legal minefield. In the infamous Factortame cases, the legislation was found to contravene the European treaties. Under normal legal procedures, this would have inadvertently superseded and repealed the European Communities Act 1972, propelling us out of what was then the EEC. To avoid this, the judges took the unprecedented step of disapplying the legislation. Watered-down legislation was eventually passed in 1995 and remains in force to this day.
These cases, which set the European Communities Act on a sort of pedestal, higher than any other UK law, are a long-standing eurosceptic grievance. Brexit will allow the constitutional wreckage caused by the Factortame cases to be reversed, restoring parliamentary sovereignty to its former glory. However, Brexit will also mean no more EU rules to stop us implementing the provisions of the old legislation.
These provisions were common sense then, and are common sense now. The legislation was initially brought in to stop the practice of ‘quota hopping’, whereby, for example, Spanish companies registered some vessels under a British ‘flag of convenience’ in order to be able to fish part of both the Spanish and British quotas.
After Brexit, a similar problem could easily emerge with foreign-owned and foreign-based vessels registering as ‘British’ in order to fish freely in our waters. Take, for instance, the Cornelis Vrolijk, an infamous huge trawler which catches about 6% of the entire UK quota. It is Dutch-owned and operates out of a Dutch port – but registered under the British flag.
Failure to act on this issue would be an immense disappointment to the fishing communities, which have put their faith in Brexit. Would we have truly taken back control of our waters if we were so lax about which ships count as ‘British’? We would be wise to nip this problem in the bud quickly, before it has a chance to develop.
As Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson has argued in his recent paper for The Red Cell and his article for BrexitCentral, we should have the courage to take Brexit as an opportunity to reform the way we regulate fishing in this country, rather than just pasting the Common Fisheries Policy into domestic regulations. If we close this loophole allowing foreign vessels free access to our fisheries, we can do exactly that, and start building a new policy which will revive our fishing industry and make it sustainable. After all, as Charles Clover has noted in the Telegraph, it was British – not EU – initiatives which saved North Sea cod from a devastating crash in the late 1990s.
It is worth noting the arrogance of the EU’s approach to fishing in relation to Brexit. The European Parliament – apparently oblivious to the thriving fisheries of Norway and Iceland – has claimed it is “difficult to see any alternative to the continued application of the CFP in British waters in order to maintain sustainable fishing”.
Meanwhile, the EU wants to discuss fishing in the ‘trade’ part of negotiations, not the ‘exit’ part, even though Brexit means we automatically regain control over our waters. We should be under no illusions: we will have to be vigilant in closing loopholes and making sure we keep our fisheries British.
Most of the fishing powerhouses of the North Atlantic – Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands – are fiercely protective of their fisheries, only allowing foreign vessels to fish in their waters at a premium. Britain should not hesitate to follow suit. When we Get Britain Out of the European Union, we must revive, in some form, the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, close this loophole, and genuinely take back control of our waters.
Joseph Hackett is a Research Executive at Get Britain Out