In Irish mythology, the salmon was a symbol of wisdom andknowledge. In early Christianity, the fish was a symbol used byChristians to identify themselves to fellow Christians. In thecurrent phase of Brexit negotiations, the fish is emerging as asymbol of the differences between the UK and the EU in terms ofstrategy, perspective and approach.
This week, what is only the second substantive round ofdiscussions between the EU and UK taskforces on Brexit, areunderway. While little clarity has thus far emerged on how thesides are likely to resolve their differences, it appearsincreasingly clear that an extension of negotiations beyond the 31December deadline using the mechanism agreed in the WithdrawalAgreement is highly unlikely. Speaking to the House of CommonsBrexit Committee, UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove spoke ofdeadlines concentrating minds. The deadline of 31 December seemsset to remain.
During the Brexit debate, there were many nostalgic referencesto the days when Britain's fleet opened and supported new traderoutes from the UK. In the emerging tactical battleground of thecurrent negotiations, the positioning by the UK of the fishingfleet suggests that preparations are well underway for a period ofbrinkmanship, with enormous potential consequences. While none ofthe UK position papers submitted to the EU to date have beenpublished, it is clear that no paper has been submitted onfisheries. The UK wants to be treated, in Michael Gove's words,"as an independent coastal state, like Norway,Icelandandthe Faroes". In short, the UK favourslimiting access to UK waters for EU vessels and agreeing theavailable quota of fish on an annual basis. The EU fundamentallywants continuance of the Common Fisheries Policy, arguing that anannual negotiation of the quota is impractical.
Those in the UK arguing for a reduction in the level of accessto UK waters granted to EU vessels point to the fact that vesselsfrom other EU member states land many times more fish from UKwaters than UK vessels land from EU waters. Those arguing for moreopen access note that some studies suggest that the UK imports mostof the fish it eats and exports most of the fish it lands. Thisdifference of perspective over fish mirrors the differingperspectives on many of the other outstanding issues between thesides. Many in the UK would argue that its position on how muchcertainty can be granted on fish quotas is akin to the EU'sposition on financial services equivalence. Politically andsymbolically, how and when agreement is reached on the issue offishing rights is important. It will speak to how and when progresson other matters is likely to be achieved.
Three countries, Canada, Australia and Ukraine, are alsoemerging as code words for the gap in perspective between the EUand the UK. The UK wants a Canadian or an Australian style tradedeal. It wants to use existing agreements the EU has with thosethird countries as the basis for agreement. In Mr Gove's wordsby relying on precedent "we can cut and paste in order toensure that we can reach agreement.". The UK regards issueslike fisheries as being issues which can be agreed on a case bycase basis rather than as part of one comprehensive agreement.
The EU wants a comprehensive agreement which upholds EUstandards on social, environmental, climate, tax and state aidmatters for the future. Michel Barnier's mandate is to reach anagreement which provides for continued reciprocal access tomarkets, and to waters, with stable quota shares. "The more wewill have common standards, the higher-quality access the EU willbe able to offer to its market" was Mr Barnier'ssummation.
The UK's reaction to the EU approach is that it is beingtreated more like a state seeking accession to the EU, likeUkraine, than one which is leaving the EU. The EU has equaldifficulty in accepting the comparison to Canada or Australia,because the UK is geographically closer and a much larger tradingpartner than Australia or Canada, sending 40% of its exports to theEU. Distance imposes natural quotas of its own.
There is at least agreement on what Michael Gove characterisedas the major obstacles to agreement so far. These are the levelplaying field, fisheries, governance and criminal justice. I willreturn to each of these in future blogs. The critical point,however, is that the EU is determined that the integrity of thesingle market is protected, and that future divergence in standardsor laws is not a backdoor for unfair competition whichdisadvantages the EU27.
Many in the UK argue that they are not interested in a 'raceto the bottom' on standards, that decades of EU membershipmeans that they are already aligned with the EU on those standardsand that UK law transposes many of those standards to UKlegislation. In a webinar which Matheson hosted with the BritishIrish Chamber of Commerce last week, Hilary Benn, the Chair of theHouse of Commons Committee on the Future Relationship with theEuropean Union suggested that the focus for some was on theprinciple of independence, as opposed to a desire to immediatelydiverge from the EU standards in many areas. Michael Gove expressedit as a "broad set of non-regression principles, as there arein all free trade agreements" but not the type of levelplaying field provisions that the EU is requesting of the UK. Onesuspects that the EU's appetite to rely on non-binding anddifficult to measure assurances on these issues will no doubt beinfluenced by its perception of the conduct of the negotiations todate.
The scale of the philosophical differences between the sides,the impact of COVID-19 on progress and the absence so far of anyreal sectoral negotiations prompted many to assume an extension tothe transition period was likely. What seems more likely now, isthat there will neither be the time nor political capacity tofulfil the EU negotiating mandate as set out in February by 31December.
In this game of brinkmanship, the UK is seeking to make time itssecretary. In telescoping negotiations into the second half of theyear, it appears to want to create an inevitable outcome where onlya few areas can be agreed. Others must be left for futureconsideration if a no-deal, hard Brexit is to be avoided. Thisseems to be the emerging tactical plan, in pursuit of what areclear strategic goals. It wants sectoral arrangements, not anoverarching arrangement, aligned with EU rules and arbitrated by EUinstitutions. The choice facing the EU next autumn will be one withfundamental consequences. Keep fishing and land what they'vecaught by 31 December, or prepare to raise anchor and sail awayinto the gathering storm.
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