Johnson unlikely to opt for no-deal Brexit because of fisheries

Issue important enough politically for PM to delay in hope of extracting more concessions

British prime minister Boris Johnson hopes the EU will agree to shorten the transition period or increase the size of the quota to be returned to Britain. File photograph: PA

British prime minister Boris Johnson hopes the EU will agree to shorten the transition period or increase the size of the quota to be returned to Britain. File photograph: PA

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Would Boris Johnson really walk away from a free-trade agreement with the European Union over a dispute about fish? On the face of it, and in view of the tiny part of the British economy for which fisheries account, the question is absurd.

But as negotiations move towards their next crisis and the latest deadline looms on Sunday, those close to the prime minister believe he is serious when he says he cannot accept a deal that does not deliver a clear win for Britain’s fishermen. 

A no-deal outcome would be disastrous for a fishing industry that would lose tariff-free access to its biggest market. But Downing Street regards the EU’s proposal for an 18 per cent cut in its share of the fish in British waters with an eight-year transition period as derisory.

Michel Barnier met representatives from the EU’s coastal states twice on Friday before returning to the negotiating table with David Frost on Friday afternoon. Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen are expected to speak again over the weekend to assess how much progress has been made since their call on Thursday night.

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Johnson hopes that the EU will agree either to shorten the transition period or increase the size of the quota to be returned to Britain. And he is determined that any retaliatory tariffs the EU imposes if Britain chooses to limit access to its waters in future are confined to fisheries.

Coastal states and agreement

British fishing fleets could not take advantage of an immediate, dramatic increase in their quota and the three-year transition Johnson is offering is almost certainly too short for them. But unlike the details of arbitration panels for the level playing field, access to British fishing waters is an issue most people think they understand.

The stakes are so high that Johnson is unlikely to opt for no deal just because of fisheries but the issue is important enough politically for him to delay making a deal in the hope of extracting more concessions. Britain’s hopes rest partly on coastal states with an overwhelming interest in avoiding no deal – such as Ireland – sacrificing part of their fishing quota to allow the French to hold more, and on the EU being prepared to subsidise fishing communities that lose out.

Such a chain of events could require a further crisis in the talks, driving through the European Parliament’s deadline of Sunday night and continuing the negotiations right up to Christmas. A deal agreed as late as Christmas Eve would allow MPs to be recalled on Monday, December 28th, to push through the necessary legislation in a single day.

It would then be up to the European Commission and the EU member states to work out how to deal with the European Parliament.

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