Britain offers EU fishing concession as part of Brexit sweetener
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Britain offers EU fishing concession as part of Brexit sweetener

Under the proposal, the catches of European fishing fleets in UK waters would be ‘phased down’ between 2021 and 2024. Photograph: William Edwards/AFP via Getty Images

Brexit

Exclusive: Three-year transition period for European fishing fleets among proposals in negotiating paper

Wed 30 Sep 2020 12.53 EDT

Britain has offered a three-year transition period for European fishing fleets to allow them to prepare for the post-Brexit changes as part of an 11th-hour deal sweetener.

The catches of EU fishermen would be “phased down” between 2021 and 2024 to offer time for European coastal communities to adapt to the changes.

The lengthy transition period is contained in a new negotiating paper tabled before the current round of negotiations in Brussels between the teams led by the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.

The idea of a phase-down period for Europe’s fishing fleets had been floated previously but details had not been provided until recent days, with the UK government now seemingly determined to break the Brexit logjam.

“We have a long way to go but if the other problematic issues can be sorted, it doesn’t look like fisheries will stand in the way of an agreement,” said one senior EU diplomat.

This week’s trade and security talks are due to end on Friday, at which point EU leaders gathering at a summit in Brussels will be debriefed on the latest developments by the European council president, Charles Michel.

The Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, is also expected to address the 27 heads of state and government on Dublin’s views on the state of play in light. “But the Brexit summit is on 15 October”, said one EU diplomat. “We don’t have a breakthrough yet.”

The offer of a transition period comes as the UK signed its first independent fishing deal for 40 years. The deal with Norway involves annual negotiations on share of catch, something the EU has rejected in Brexit trade talks.

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said during a visit to Washington on Tuesday night that he believed there was a good chance of a trade deal. “The obstacles are not insurmountable,” he said. “We should be able to get this deal done.”

However, UK fisheries leaders warned the government not to sell them out. Barrie Deas, the head of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said: “What we wouldn’t agree to is surrendering fishing rights in order to have a trade deal.

“There is no expectation within the UK fishing industry that the UK will back down on fisheries. If anything, the commitments that have been made to the industry are stronger now than when the negotiations started. We’ve been given clear and unequivocal commitments.”

The UK remains fixed on replacing the common fisheries policy with a system of “zonal attachment” that would offer a significant increase in catches for British fishing fleets.

Currently, Britain’s economic zone is part of common EU waters. The UK receives a fixed share based on how much its fishermen caught during a reference period between 1973 and 1978.

Under the new system proposed by the UK, the two sides would agree on what percentage of shared stocks are attached to each of their European economic zones each year. Catch quotas would be organised in line with that percentage.

A failure to agree annually on catches could lead to EU fleets being locked out of British waters. France is particularly concerned by the impact on its fishing communities and has taken a “maximalist” position that the status quo should be protected.

One senior EU diplomat from a coastal member state said: “Is this a phasing-out of the withdrawal of British fishermen from the EU? Or of the access of British fishery products to the EU?”

“It is perfect, clear. We are not for a gradual withdrawal of quotas. We are for permanent quotas.”

“Phasing out is not an option if the UK wants access to the European market in general, which is based on an absence of tariffs and quotas.”

While the policy would deliver the extra catches to British fishermen promised as a Brexit bonus, it is understood the government is also making new commitments on maintaining EU sustainability standards and cooperation on the collection of data.

The offer was part of five new draft negotiating documents submitted by the government, including legal texts on fisheries, the “level playing field”, law enforcement and judicial cooperation, civil nuclear cooperation and social security coordination.

A UK government spokesman said: “We aren’t commenting during the talks. We set out our position at the beginning of these negotiations and have always been clear that we will deliver the benefits that fishing communities have been asking for.”

An EU official said: “We can confirm that we received additional documents from the UK. We are studying them.”

According to Brussels sources, the UK’s new paper on state aid, still the most contentious of the outstanding issues, offers to lay out a series of “principles” on controlling domestic subsidies.

The EU said the paper offered hope that the UK would build on provisions in the recently signed UK-Japan deal. The trade deal with Tokyo prevents either side from indefinitely guaranteeing the debts of struggling companies or providing open-ended bailouts without approved restructuring plans.

But the paper failed to offer appropriate “governance” proposals that would allow Brussels to keep the UK to its pledges, EU sources said.

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