Fish net

Nothing says ‘Brexit means Brexit’ like standing aboard a fishing trawler and flinging armfuls of haddock and skate into the Thames. Or that was the conclusion Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and pro-Brexit lobby group Fishing for Leave reportedly came to this week, having been driven to protest against what they have described as a “pitiful, disgusting, abject betrayal” by Theresa May’s government.

Because while the post-Brexit transition period announced yesterday by David Davis and Michel Barnier has been cautiously welcomed by the UK’s wider food and farming industry, it could leave Britain’s fishermen in hot water. The deal struck means that instead of regaining control over our fishing waters on 29 March 2019, the UK will continue to follow the EU’s rules until December 2020 – with no say over what those rules are.

In the words of Scottish Fishermen’s Federation CEO Bertie Armstrong, “we will leave the EU and leave the CFP, but hand back sovereignty over our seas a few seconds later”.

Most of the concern seems to be around what will happen with quotas during that interim period. The EU has promised the UK will still be ‘consulted’ on quotas, but that’s very different from having a vote.

Fishing for Leave

And Fishing for Leave has warned there could be more dire consequences for the UK’s fishing fleet. If the UK agrees to re-obey the CFP in a new treaty, the EU would have grounds to claim continuity and continuation of rights under the Vienna Convention of Treaties, the group says. This means it could “take us to the cleaners” by enforcing legislation that “eradicates” what is left of the British fleet, before using international fisheries law to claim the “surplus” resources we no longer have the fleet capacity to catch.

It’s a tough situation, admittedly. And while I’m still not totally convinced the EU is actually plotting to wipe out the UK fishing fleet, or indeed how lobbing a boxful of seabass into a river is going to help matters, I can sympathise with their frustrations.

But it is probably worth pointing out this is exactly the sort of situation those in the food industry opposed to Brexit have been warning about since before the referendum. Because the government will be forced to make compromises like this if it wants to secure a free trade deal with the EU. If it refuses to compromise, and ends up without an EU deal, it’ll face protests from the rest of the food industry, and possibly even British consumers if food prices rise as fast as they could.

It all serves as a reminder of just how complex a task Theresa May and her motley crew are facing. Perhaps that’s why Nigel Farage – whose own Thames-based battle for Brexit was limited to flinging insults at Bob Geldof while apparently dressed as Alan Partridge – jumped ship after the referendum vote. Brexit might mean Brexit, but given we are making it up as we go along, does anyone actually know what that means?