"When even core groups of Brexit supporters start questioning their decision, it is time to reconsider whether it is still in our national interest to leave."
In the weeks leading up to the Brexit referendum, our fishermen and women were amongst the the most staunch supporters of the Leave campaign. Some even sailed the length and breadth of the country to join Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit flotilla down the Thames, before it culminated in the somewhat bizarre nautical scuffle with Sir Bob Geldoff.
When I visited Newlyn, one of England’s largest fishing ports, in the company of that Cornish champion and ex-Parliamentary colleague of mine, Andrew George, I therefore expected to be overwhelmed with expressions of enthusiasm for the Government’s attempts to take us out of Europe, and great expectations for the bright future of fishing communities post-Brexit.
But far from rampant optimism, a more cautious attitude prevailed. While the Leave campaign focused on ‘taking back control’ of our waters, the problems now facing British fishermen have as much do with the next stage of the production chain as they do with fishing rights.
In the fisheries sector, there is a very high degree of cross-border trade between the EU and the UK. Around 80% of the Newlyn catch is exported to the EU by truck, and similarly, a significant bulk of fish consumed in the UK is imported from the EU’s Single Market, coming from Norway and Finland. Up until now, cross-border trade in fish has not been an issue, due to the seamless, tariff-free movement of goods inside the Single Market and the Customs Union.
Yet the prospect of more stringent border controls and the introduction of tariffs present significant challenges for industries which depend on the freshness of their produce. Not only is there a real risk that it will get more expensive to export fish to the EU, but refrigerated lorries can only keep fish fresh for so long, particularly seafood, like langoustine, which are alive during transport.
If the lorries transporting fish to the continent get stopped at the border and have to wait for longer periods, the value of entire shipments might drop, as the quality and freshness is compromised, or the shipment might go off altogether.
In the face of these challenges, the UK cannot simply export these products to different markets at the other end of the world. Even if those markets have an appetite for these products (and past experience shows alternative markets cannot always be found), trade is more expensive over long distances and longer journeys mean an increased risk of shipments losing freshness.
In order to overcome such challenges, the EU has invested money in the modernisation of the fisheries sector. The plan at Newlyn is to modernise the fish-selling sector (combined with a locally-driven diversification plan). An online auction system at their refrigerated market of certified sellers, with live video streams, would allow people comfortably to bid online on the fish and could shorten the unrefrigerated exposure of the catch.
Newlyn will have received in the region of £10 million in recent years, and expects another £8 million from the EU before Brexit happens. Yet with the end of EU membership, comes the end of EU funding.
In other words, Brexit is going to create new barriers to trade and, unless EU funding is replaced, will leave British fishermen with less money to invest in their industry.
Meanwhile, what was supposed to be the main rationale for leaving the EU, taking back control of British waters, also looks increasingly uncertain.
Despite access to British waters being one of the few areas in which the UK holds any leverage over the EU – due to the richness of Britain’s waters and the EU’s determination to maintain access – there is growing apprehension that the Conservative government will be tempted to trade fishing rights for concessions in other, more profitable sectors of the economy.
Moreover, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea safeguards the fishing rights of foreign vessels in international waters. This means that even if we ‘take back control’ of British waters, up to 200 miles or the median line, beyond the 12 nautical mile limit, the UN Convention also has a significant role.
The final and obvious point that was made to me is that fish, wherever we set our border, don’t know only to swim within them – so regional negotiations with the French, Spanish, Irish and others will still be required. Otherwise the fish we hope to catch in UK waters may not arrive from those of a neighbour’s waters, unless we’re willing to manage that stock cooperatively.
In the shorter term, British fishermen are very concerned about the proposed transition period, which would keep the UK in the Common Fisheries Policy yet take away the UK seat at the table and their voice in crucial negotiations.
To add insult to injury, some fear that certain EU countries would take this opportunity to punish the UK for Brexit, with fishing rivals France and Spain leading the charge.
Once ardent Leave-supporting organisations are now increasingly left with the feeling that they may not get what they are still irresponsibly being promised by Brexit fundamentalist Ministers.
Having been led on by deceptive promises of taking back control, and what some refer to as the outright lies of the now DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove during the Referendum, many fishermen are growing to be less confident about the future of their industry and have lost all trust in the government’s ability and willingness to protect their interests.
This is perhaps the most telling indication of the far-reaching negative consequences of the Brexit or bust attitude of this government. The very industry which ought to be the poster boy for the anti-Europeans seems unconvinced they’ll be any better off and worried that things will become worse.
When even core groups of Brexit supporters start questioning their decision, it is time to reconsider whether it is still in our national interest, or indeed the will of the people, to leave.
In a democracy, opinions change as facts emerge. We now know that almost every sector, of every region, in the UK is going to be worse off as a result of Brexit. It is time to ask the people whether this is really what they wanted.
Tom Brake MP is the Liberal Democrats’ Brexit Spokesman, and visited Newlyn at the end of May.
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