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Why Brexit all comes down to fish

Skipper Stuart Hamilton, pulls in the nets while fishing for flatfish in the English Channel from a Hastings fishing boat in August 2020 - Credit: Getty Images

The importance of the fishing industry – and its centrality to the Brexit negotiations – does not lie in economic figures.

Fishing, in the UK, is important. And, generally speaking, many Remain supporters have failed to understand that – and it could even be argued our failure to do so helps to explain not just why people voted in favour of Brexit, but why the Remain campaign failed to stop it.

Since before Brexit was even the most distant of prospects – certainly long before the term ‘Brexit’ itself was coined – rows over fishing rights were central to the case against the European Union and the UK having some role in it.

And now, at the close, in these last few weeks in which we can get a deal before the UK leaves the transition period, British negotiators are briefing out that it is, inevitably, fishing that is providing one of the sticking points.

Fishing has long been a central part of the Leave cause, alongside blue passports and a nebulous conception of sovereignty. The hard part to work out, at least at first, is why.

One thing we much be absolutely clear about is that it’s certainly not because fishing is an important industry for the UK in economic terms. The entire fisheries sector – which includes things like domestic salmon farming, not just traditional fishing – generates just 0.02% of the UK’s GVA (Gross Value Added, a measure similar to GDP, which measures national output).

In other words, if the fisheries sector got 50 times bigger overnight, it would still only represent 1/1000th of the UK economy. In pure economic terms, it is barely even a rounding error.

Not many people are employed in the fishing industry either, though no-one would deny the work is hard and the profession dangerous – perhaps why not too many people want to go into it. Around 12,000 people in the UK, out of a labour force of almost 35 million, work in fishing. By contrast, around 1.3 million people in the UK are employed in call centres, 120,000 as plumbers and 18,000 are Church of England vicars. Fishing is not a big source of employment.

Inevitably, and perhaps ironically, that’s not set to change if the UK has the hardest of Brexits and reclaims ‘our’ territorial fishing waters entirely – which would not necessarily be the outcome if this happened in any case.

The issue for UK fishing boats is that British consumers don’t particularly like to eat the fish most frequently caught in our waters. As a result, we export more than 75% of all of the fish we catch – almost all of it to the EU.

While the EU doesn’t exert tariffs on all fish imports, it does on some – meaning Brexit could actually harm the fishing industry, even before considering fish processing plants which rely on imported fish of the types we do like to eat here.

In simple economic terms, fishing just does not matter. The industry cannot make a claim for a powerful seat at the table in terms of its economic output, taxes paid, or people employed – and can’t make a case that a particular Brexit deal would radically transform the future of their sector. If we were all perfectly rational economic actors, we would never hear about fishing in our national conversation. And yet.

Clearly, if ever we wanted simple proof that we are not simply rational economic actors, let this suffice for the moment. For many of us, fishing holds a special place relative to other, more productive, economic sectors.

Some of that ties to deep-seated fears about feeding ourselves: being able to fish, as an island nation, is a source of apparent security, even if the idea of the UK being totally self-reliant for food is, at this point, a total fiction.

Some of it comes from family and community ties. Many small towns and villages, often now struggling economically and haemorrhaging younger residents to cities, have proud fishing histories. Many families in those towns – and in the cities nearby – remember relatives who worked in the trade.

These are powerful enough forces already, but then they tie into the nostalgia that pervades much of UK politics: Britannia ruled the waves – shouldn’t she be able to at least keep her own bloody fish? It’s not much to ask, is it?

These are the emotive arguments those of us on the Remain side often failed to notice, appreciate or even engage with, both before the EU referendum and in its aftermath. It became easy, routine almost, to assume people didn’t know the relevant economic statistics about the sector, and that they would care to the point of changing their mind if they heard them.

That’s perhaps why fishing has become one of the final sticking points in the negotiations to leave – not because of its actual import, but because of its symbolic significance.

If this government is going to make post-Dominic Cummings concessions on the ‘level playing field’ rules – critical to securing a trade deal – it needs something to offer its backbenchers and to Leave voters that will look unambiguously like a win, and like taking back control.

The pragmatists on the UK negotiation team might hope that fishing could provide that win, given it’s a concession that clearly won’t have huge economic impacts.

The problem is the UK is not the only nation where sentiment, as well as economic realities, matter. Our neighbours have coastlines and coastal communities too. Their governments don’t have Brexit as their central manifesto commitments. They have little incentive to offer their own constituents’ livelihoods as a sacrifice to the greater good for the EU as a whole.

The final days of the EU trade talks mirror the UK’s fraught relationship to it throughout, always trying to balance economic and symbolic forces that pull in opposite directions, and which our politicians never managed to align.

As the talks end, we are left with something close to the famous aphorism from Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: so long…but what about the fish?

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