The UK and the EU have clashed over the bloc’s fishing rights in UK waters, in a first test of relations between the two parties after Brexit.
Britain and Brussels led negotiations this week over how much fish each side can catch out of a hundred species spread across EU and UK waters. Both parties are required under international law to work together to set these annual fishing limits.
But people close to the negotiations warned they had run into problems from the start, with the EU even halting negotiations at one point over fears that Britain’s position violated common commitments to jointly manage fish stocks.
Negotiations later resumed after the UK gave assurances it wanted to work together, but people close to the talks said serious problems remained. “Damage has been done,” said a European diplomat.
The row began after the UK announced on February 1 that it was considering a total ban on fishing in UK waters which are part of the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea.
The move was greeted with enthusiasm by non-governmental organizations who have long pushed for stricter conservation measures.
However, the proposal was seen in EU member states as a cynical British move to reduce the bloc’s fishing rights under the guise of greening.
About 85 percent of the fish caught on Dogger Bank – an area of 17,600 km2 that straddles the territorial waters of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany – are caught by EU fleets. The block’s boats caught 34,758 tonnes of fish there in 2018, compared to 1,318 tonnes for British ships.
The UK’s decision to consider banning fishing in UK waters which are part of Dogger Bank “is not proportionate and disproportionately affects EU fisheries,” said an EU diplomat. “There is no scientific justification for this, not all parts of the Dogger Bank are so vulnerable that they should be shut down.”
Conservation experts disagreed, saying the UK decision was ‘long overdue’ and that the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy had consistently prevented Britain from acting to protect marine environments.
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of Exeter, said the UK decision was justified.
“This is a very proportionate – and belated – response to a long-standing need to better manage the country’s marine environment,” he added.
The UK Department of Agriculture said leaving the EU has allowed Britain to act more flexibly and follow scientific advice to protect the marine environment.
“The UK now has new powers to introduce protections in offshore marine protected areas with consultation on the first four sites, including Dogger Bank, currently underway,” added a spokesperson.
Brussels fears that Britain’s position in the negotiations reflects a disregard for commitments made by the two sides in their future deal on the relationship, reached late last year.
Annual EU-UK fisheries talks are needed because, while the trade agreement between the two parties sets out the relative share of fishing rights each gets for the species, it does not resolve the issue of overall amount that can be captured.
International law requires this to be done through negotiations. Normally these should be completed by January 1, but the fact that the EU and UK did not agree on their future relationship deal until the end of December means provisional arrangements are in place at the moment.
The EU and UK now face the prospect of no deal ready for the expiration of provisional fishing rights on April 1, leaving the two sides to weigh measures to extend them.
The European Commission declined to comment.