Addressing a House of Lords EU Energy and Environment sub-committee on Wednesday, Environment Secretary George Eustice highlighted that the UK is boosting control over its waters and did not rule out that EU vessels would have to pay to access British maritime territories starting next year.
Responding to threats that French fisherman would block cross-Channel ports including Dover and Calais if fishing is excluded from the EU-UK agreement, the environment secretary specified the Royal Navy, the Home Office, and the government would send extra vessels to patrol the country’s marine territories.
European countries that fish in the UK's waters are pressuring Brussels into protecting their interests so that they can maintain the same access to the UK's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, has made it clear: being an “independent coastal state” post-Brexit Britain would “take back control” of its waters.
Dispute on Fishing is Clearly Politicised
Barrie Deas, chief executive at the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, UK, deems that Britain's stance is justified given that under international law the post-Brexit UK will become an independent coastal state, with the rights and responsibilities for managing the fisheries within its EEZ.
"There will be no automatic access to each others waters", he underscores. "Access will be negotiated, as will quota shares of trans-boundary stocks. All non-UK vessels fishing in UK waters will require to be licensed".
As for French fishermen, they may blockade their own ports, but the problem is that it hurts trade, Deas notes: "Trade by its nature is two-way and we would expect the French authorities to intervene".
Iain Begg, professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science, feels "the dispute on fishing is out of all proportion to the economic significance of the industry".
Indeed, the fishing industry that has somehow become the cornerstone of the Brexit debate accounts for about 0.1% of the UK's economy.
According to him, the truth of the matter is that it "reflects political commitments made to their respective fishing communities on both sides".
At the same time, the professor lambasts the bloc for its double-standard approach when it comes to fisheries.
"The EU, while saying in relation to other policy areas that the UK cannot expect to retain all the benefits of full members, nevertheless seems to want exactly the rights the UK had conceded to it as a condition of EU membership for its fishing industry!" Begg highlights.
For her part, Birgit S. Hansen, mayor in the Municipality of Frederikshavn, Denmark, a country directly involved in the UK-EU fishing row, is laconic: "The negotiations regarding access to UK fishing waters are taking place at the EU-level", she states. "So we have to see, what the result of these negotiations well be".
'UK Gov't is Between a Rock and a Hard Place'
Still, there is more to the dispute over fisheries than meets the eye, according to Jeremy Percy, director of the body representing the UK’s small fishing vessels, the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association.
"The government is betwen a rock and a hard place", he says.
"On the one hand we were promised thousands of tonnes more fish post-Brexit and if we get more then someone has to get less", Percy explains citing the fact that currently France's fleet take "over 50% of their landings from UK territorial waters".
According to him, if Britons get the extra quota the French will obviously block their ports which will result in the bankruptcy of small scale fishermen who rely on exports from Britain's side of the Channel.
On the other hand, should the British government give in to the EU pressure and link fisheries with wider trade talks London would break its promises to UK fishermen who are anticipating "this great windfall of extra fish" and the removal of the EU fleet from Britain's EEZ.
Percy fears there is a risk that in the absence of any meaningful enforcement action by the UK authorities British fishermen would "take the law into their own hands".
"It is clear that we do not have enough ships to cover our entire coastline so anything could happen", he notes.
As Brexit seemingly creates opportunities for a new approach to fisheries management, the UK is seeking to follow in the footsteps of Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, which have independent coastal lines outside the EU and maintain their own quota monitoring and licensing systems to govern their offshore fisheries.
However, according to Percy, the aforementioned examples cannot solve all the questions raised by the UK-EU fisheries dilemma.
"Iceland does not have any close neighbours whereas we have a number of member states close by and Iceland only succeeded in getting rid of UK boats by cutting the trawl wires whilst our boats were fishing [which is a very dangerous practice]", the head of the fishermen association says.
To add to the controversy, EU vessels still have a legal right to continue to fish in UK waters under UNCLOS rules "that provide such a permission for vessels with 'habitual' activity in another member states waters", Percy points out.
"The Irish, French, Belgian, Dutch, and Danish fleets can all claim this right so as I say, the only certainty at present is still uncertainty", he sums up.
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