ON DECEMBER 11TH 1975 an Icelandic coastguard vessel came across a group of British ships sheltering from a storm in a fjord and ordered them to leave. The minesweeper collided with one of the British boats. Shots were fired; first blanks, then live ammunition. London sent in a frigate force. Reykjavik took the incident to the UN. And all because of fish. The incident, more evocative of 18th-century gunboat diplomacy than modern relations between liberal democracies, played out at the height of the “cod wars” over fishing rights. Rival trawlers frequently rammed each other. The conflict even affected the cold war: Britain felt itself obliged to divert naval ships from patrols of the North Atlantic to guard North Sea trawlers. Iceland ultimately got its way by threatening to leave NATO.
The European fishing industry is a minnow. In the EU it contributes about 0.1% of GDP. Even in the regions most reliant on fishing (Scotland’s highlands and islands, Spain’s Galicia, Greece’s Ionian islands) the proportion is little more than 2%. Yet the industry exerts an outsized pull on the continent’s politics, affecting even giant geopolitical matters. The latest example is Brexit. At a summit on November 25th leaders from the 27 remaining member states will discuss and, it is expected, approve the withdrawal agreement drafted by the British government and the European Commission, as well as a political declaration on the future relationship between Britain and the EU. One of the main bones of contention will be fish.
European fishing policies helped motivate the Leave vote: Brexiteers demanded the freedom to exclude foreign trawlers from British waters, where they catch eight times as many fish as Britons do in foreign waters. A flotilla of fishing boats on the Thames in June 2016 was one of the campaign’s most memorable events. One EU diplomat was struck, on the morning after the vote, to be called first not by his country’s foreign or finance minister but by its fisheries minister. In Brexit, fish matter.
British and EU negotiators had to leave the subject out of the withdrawal agreement. It is now due to be resolved by summer 2020, ahead of the end of the post-Brexit transition period. That incensed Brexiteers and Remainers alike. Last week Conservative MPs from pro-Remain Scotland wrote to Theresa May objecting to any settlement short of “full sovereignty over our waters”. But governments of other coastal states, including France, Belgium and Portugal, want assurances that their trawlers will retain access to British waters. France wants a future trade deal to depend on such a guarantee. The common ground is narrow, so negotiators have to find a vague form of words to keep the deal alive. And all that for some 6,000 fishing jobs on the continent and a sector that contributes about as much to the British economy as logging or the manufacture of leather goods.
What makes fishing so politically sensitive? Unlike widgets, say, fish are a limited, ecologically sensitive resource. They also migrate between competing national jurisdictions, and their movements are growing more complicated as global warming drives shoals in the North and Atlantic seas northward. Divvying up rights and quotas is tricky. Resentments emerge easily and die hard. Bad blood between Spanish and Irish fishermen, for example, has lingered for decades. The Irish navy once sank a Spanish vessel. Such disputes have often ended up at the European Court of Justice, generating some of the case law underpinning fundamental EU principles like non-discrimination between member states, the primacy of European law and clear dividing lines between EU and national competences.
Another factor that makes fishing touchy is that it is intensely geographically concentrated. In some European ports it generates more than 30% of local output and more than 50% of jobs; more if associated activities like transport, shipbuilding and fishmongering are included. If the industry suffers, the effects are starkly visible. Some of the poorest parts of north-west Europe are fishing towns whose trade has withered. Grimsby, on England’s east coast, is so down-at-heel that Sacha Baron Cohen set a film there. Concentrated deprivation creates political pressure.
A bigger scale
Fishermen have the tools and sense of common purpose to make their grievances heard. Boats can be used to ram rival boats—a method that featured heavily in the “scallop wars” earlier this year, as French fishermen tried to prevent Cornish competitors from circumventing local ecological restrictions. Boats can also be used to create wider disruption. In January it took just a dozen trawlers to shut down the port of Calais, in protest at the Dutch use of electric pulses to release fish from the seabed. Irish, French and Spanish fishermen have all used such blockades over the years to extract government support on fuel costs. The industry is just as pushy in Brussels. Last year the Corporate Europe Observatory revealed that a number of fish lobbyists had used press passes to enter the EU Council building during ministerial deliberations about fishing quotas.
In the corridors of Brussels a simpler explanation is the most cited: “People just like fishermen,” says one insider. Europeans feel an almost Proustian connection to their food and landscapes that does not readily express itself when the widget industry is in trouble. To voters and politicians in coastal states, fishing ports are part of the national identity; they feature regularly in children’s books. And jeopardised fishermen suggest jeopardised bouillabaisse or matjes. Such emotional considerations may yet force the hand of Brexit negotiators, notes Rem Korteweg of the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think-tank. Without agreement by 2020, Britain’s fish exports (some two-thirds of its catch) will dry up, devastating fishing ports. As on so much else, the Brexiteers may not have thought this one through.