It’s not about fish.
Reading coverage of the last week of Brexit negotiations one would be forgiven thinking that the EU was jeopardising Europe and Britain’s economies by holding out against unfortunate British patriots who just want to fish in their own waters.
Fish Fights are a distraction.
Fishing makes up just 1% of the British economy and less than that for most of the EU. Some countries — like Czechia & Austria — don’t even have coast lines. Why would they risk so much just to for the French to catch more mackerel?
The short answer is: they wouldn’t and they aren’t.
So what actually matters?
The EU cares about the single market, mutual recognition of rules and state aid rules — as well as adherence to the Withdrawal Agreement that has already been signed by the UK. Fisheries are just the hill that Johnson & Co have decided to die on in order to blame the EU for their lack of a deal.
Mutual Recognition of Standards
This sounds dull but bear with me.
The Conservatives argue that mutual recognition of rules limits their sovereignty. It does. But, it is a necessary part of any free trade deal.
If the EU insists that cars must be made from strong materials, are 50% fuel efficient and must pass 20 safety checks. Then the UK must do the same to sell cars to the EU.
The UK can have stricter requirements, but not lower. This is what other countries that sell cars to the EU do — like Japan and the US.
It’s what the UK has agreed to continue doing with Japan.
This is literally how Free Trade Deals work. Otherwise the UK could drop the material and efficiency requirements and only conduct 10 safety checks. This would make their cars cheaper than EU cars. The UK could then sell loads of cars to the EU and put European business at risk.
The EU will not let this happen as it would undermine the Single Market. One could argue that British standards are high anyway so this is unrealistic, but the Tories voted against blocking chlorinated chicken from being discussed in trade talks with the US.
If chlorinated chicken is allowed in UK food and the EU doesn’t require the UK to follow its standards, the UK could just sell the same chicken to the EU. This is just one example, but given that the Conservatives are all about ‘slashing red tape’ the EU doesn’t have reason to believe it is the only one.
The UK appears to want a trade deal underpinned by the EU to just believing that the UK won’t undermine the Single Market.
Arguments over State Aid rules are similar, the EU doesn’t want the UK to start subsidising British businesses to make their goods cost unfairly less than EU goods.
To be clear, the EU wants all of this to be reciprocal. They are happy to promise not to undermine the UK’s market.
The Internal Markets Bill
The Internal Markets Bill may have been a ploy but threatening to break an international treaty while negotiating a second treaty with the same group is a public declaration of bad faith. The Conservatives agreed the Withdrawal Agreement late last year, they ran an election on it, he passed it into law, then they claimed not to have read it.
Declaring in the house of Commons that you want to break international law ‘in a specific and limited way’ completely undermined the UK’s credibility. They may have climbed down eventually but the harm is done.
Remember that the UK wants to underpin its trade deal purely on the assumption that it won’t undermine the single market — basically, that the UK will always act in good faith.
They’re using an act of bad faith as a negotiating tactic to get a deal based on good faith.
It hasn’t worked, so they trawled up a fishing dispute to take the headlines, because what’s more British than fish and chips?