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Why fisheries are such a difficult part of Brexit

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“I’m sure it must be (published somewhere) but I don’t know where,” was the answer I got from an insider in one of the UK fisheries organisations in response to an email, asking where the “relative stability keys” could be found. European Union regulation is normally published but the 1983 “keys” – the percentage, EU member states get of the annual fishing quotas – were never published. Nor were the Hague Preferences, another important element in the EU common fisheries policy. Both elements were negotiated after the UK became a member of the European cooperation.

The “relative stability keys” exist only within the EU software used to allocate the annual total allowable catches. The Hague Preferences are used to increase the “keys’” allocation to the UK and Ireland. The catches change from year to year but the percentage each country gets of the different stocks, remains the same. That is the relative stability part of the EU fisheries policy.

All of this helps to explain why the UK has had so little luck in renegotiating fisheries as part of Brexit. As the Irish say, “there is a story behind it.”

The story goes back to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, where fisheries was only mentioned once. On June 30 1970, two significant steps in the making of a common fisheries policy were taken: four nations – the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Norway – formally started accession negotiations with the European Communities, EC – and the six EC countries agreed on a legal basis for its fisheries policy.

The legal basis is found in two regulations, Regulation (EEC) no 2141/70 and Regulation (EEC) no 2142/70, respectively “a common structural policy for the fishing industry” stipulating “equal access… to fishing grounds in maritime waters coming under the sovereignty or within the jurisdiction of Member States” – and “the common organisation in the market in fishery product.”

Thus, when the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined the EC in 1973, the outlines of a common fisheries policy were already in place.

Fisheries were a major international topic in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1975, Iceland became the first European country to extend its fishery limits to 200 miles. Iceland’s unilateral move was inspired by a growing international consensus on 200 miles at the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS III, from 1973 to 1982, expressed in the 1982 Law of the Sea Treaty.

The UK opposed the 200-mile principle. After the third Cod War in the fishing waters around Iceland, where Icelandic coast guard boats faced British battle ships, the two nations, under pressure from Nato, settled the dispute in June 1976. In July that year, the EC agreed on a 200-mile fishing limit for the Community, i.e. also for the UK. – The UK not only lost its fight against the 200 miles but did not seem to have a strategy if it would lose.

With the EC 200-mile fishing limit and the principle of “equal access” established, the EC now needed to find a way to allocate annually the total allowable catches in the Community’s fishing waters.

The published part of the Hague Resolution in November 1976 signalled that the EC would seek agreements on access to fishing both in fishing zones of third countries and member states. The seven unpublished annexes acknowledged that with historic catches as the main parameter for quota allocation, particular consideration should be given to Ireland and to regions where fisheries were of vital importance. The UK was not mentioned but the intention was partly to make up to the UK the loss of Icelandic waters. The unpublished annexes, partly published in a 1998 ruling by the European Court of Justice, came to be known as the Hague Preferences.

The British fishing industry had insisted on a 50-mile exclusive fishing zone from where the UK would be able to expel foreign fishermen. Again, the UK was on the wrong side of the EC consensus: using historic catches as reference for allocating catches won over the British idea of an exclusive zone. The UK could not expel foreign fishermen from its waters as it had been expelled from Icelandic waters.

In January 1983, the EC had finally agreed on the principle for annual quota allocations: each fishing nation would get the same percentage of the annual allowable catches, according to a principle of “relative stability.” The tool was the so-called “relative stability keys,” i.e. the percentage each country would get of catches in the various fishing zones. The “keys” were based on catches in 1973 to 1978.

The “keys” from 1983 have never been published, but they are still used every year to allocate quotas. The Hague Preferences can be used to increase the share of the UK and Ireland, which means that other member states get less.

A Defra report from 2018, Sustainable Fisheries for Future Generations, outlines British fisheries policy for post-Brexit Britain. Without explaining the origin of the relative stability, the report states that the EU fisheries policy has been “a poor deal for the UK,” as it “does not accurately reflect the quantity of fish within the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone,” but is “based on historical fishing patterns in 1973 – 1978. This is unrepresentative of the fish now in UK waters.”

The Defra report only mentions the Hague Preferences in a footnote, pointing out that for a certain fishing zone, the “relative stability key” is 18% but the Hague Preferences increase it to 35%, without mentioning that the Preferences are only ever used to increase the UK and the Irish quota.

The British government is entirely right that quotas can be allocated in many different ways. The principle of “relative stability” may well be unrepresentative of present stocks; after all, the principle is based on catches in the 1970s, not present stock.

Nothing lasts forever and certainly changes of the European fisheries policy have frequently been discussed, inter alia because it favours the UK and Ireland. But any British Brexit-proposal on fisheries is up against the system of “relative stability” that has served the EU well enough for 37 years and, ironically, favoured the UK.

*This blog is a short version of the longer blog below: The old saga of “relative stability” and why fisheries are such a Brexit obstacle

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

October 7th, 2020 at 2:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

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