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14 December 2020

Why Boris Johnson will struggle to deliver a “win” on fisheries

While a Brexit deal appears more likely than it did last week, fishing remains a difficult area for the Prime Minister to fudge. 

By Stephen Bush

To no one’s particular surprise, trade talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom have been extended past their latest self-imposed deadline. So far, just your regular Monday morning. 

But, rather than following the normal pattern, there are signs of genuine progress in the talks. The weekend saw a large number of noises off about the demands being made by the European Union and the British government, but the substantial movement, according to leaks from Michel Barnier’s briefing to EU ambassadors, is that the United Kingdom has accepted the principle that regulatory divergence will carry the potential for fresh tariffs, with an arbitration mechanism to go along with it.

But the two sides remain far apart over fishing.

Fishing represents a teeny-tiny amount of the GDP of the United Kingdom, let alone of the European Union. But the difficulty is that fishing is hard to fudge. You can see that in the beginnings of a breakthrough on the level playing field: who is winning? Well, the European Union looks to have retreated from the toughened position it outlined last week – but the United Kingdom has retreated from the position it has held for much of the year. If you’re looking for signs that Boris Johnson is going to pull his November 2019 trick again, retreating and claiming a major victory, there is plenty for you there. 

The difficulty is that ultimately you either have fishing rights or you don’t.  A landing zone for a deal looks more likely this week than last, but if what Johnson needs is something that he can present as a “win”, it will be much harder to secure that with fish than with anything else. 

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[see also: Are Boris Johnson’s theatrics cover for a Brexit deal or no deal?]