Europe's fishing industry will not be sacrificed to secure a free trade deal with the UK, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.
Although he hopes that signs of a deal will emerge from ongoing Brexit negotiations early next month, Mr Coveney said time was running out with two critical stumbling blocks remaining – fair commercial competition and fishing.
He was addressing the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which was seeking an update on EU-UK negotiations as the end of the Brexit transition period approaches.
“The EU is not going to sell out its fishing industry to get a trade deal on Brexit,” Mr Coveney said of what has now emerged as the key point of impasses in talks. “Of course there is an agreement to be negotiated that both sides can accept, but fishing won’t be sacrificed to get a deal.”
The Minister noted that the migratory nature of fish stocks – for instance mackerel that matures off Ireland before being fished in Scottish waters – meant they belonged to everyone, and needed to be managed effectively as a resource.
Fianna Fáil Senator Niall Blaney said he took comfort at the Minister's comments that fishing would not be sold out, "particularly [as] someone from a county like Donegal" which is heavily reliant on the industry.
While there are many other outstanding issues such as financial services, aviation, haulage, data protection, energy and judicial co-operation, the so-called “level playing field” also remains a major sticking point.
“There has to be an agreement on a whole series of principles around fair competition in order for the foundations to be laid for that free trade agreement,” Mr Coveney told the committee.
“Because there is no way the EU will sign up to an agreement if they believe that this, or a future British government, can, for example, decide to...provide financial supports through state aid that go way beyond what the EU can do to create competitive advantage for their own companies to be able to sell into the EU single market tariff free. Why would they ever facilitate that?”
Stressing the cost of not securing a trade deal, Mr Coveney said that in the agrifood sector tariffs of up to €1.5 billion would be placed on Irish exports to the UK worth €5.5 billion, a burden likely to make them unsustainable in the context of foreign competition.
As crunch time in talks nears there is general agreement that the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol – the arrangement within the already-agreed Brexit withdrawal agreement that prevents the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland – would be smoothed by a free trade agreement.
Mr Coveney told Thursday’s committee that much of the UK’s difficulties with the protocol, including the requirement for businesses in Northern Ireland to have export summary declarations on goods being shipped to Britain, would be nullified by such a trade deal.
However, fishing has now become the bête noire of negotiations. On Tuesday the former UK Tory leader William Hague warned that the EU needed to be "a bit more realistic" on the issue if a trade deal was to be realised by the end of the transition period on December 31st.