Putain de Brexit (or is that Putin…?)

“Look how the gods smile upon me”, gloated Johnson as he gave the order to send two naval patrol vessels to menace French fishing boats on the eve of local elections and the by-election in Hartlepool. After all, the Falklands War had been absolute catnip for Thatcher supporters! Nothing like another excuse to put out more flags and indulge in a bit of willie-waving at the Frogs to mobilise the ‘patriots’, so let’s get HMS Severn and HMS Tamar out there and give ’em all a bit of a treat.

Naturally, he and his team decided not to mention that awkward little clause in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) (aka the ‘Oven-ready deal’ that had been slammed together in time to b*gger off for the jolly Christmas hollybobs) . The clause ensured that the review of fishing quotas would come up at the same time as an agreement regarding ongoing provision of energy from the EU to the UK and Channel Islands. Some helpful (interfering) types had tried to point out this and other obstacles to breaches at the time, but, honestly, in the land of King Boris, rules are for losers. And as for the small print? Well. That’s for the nerds and proles.

Johnson and the Vote Leave campaign had promised fisherfolk the world…or the oceans, at the very least. They singularly failed to deliver, instead trying to bill the end of the catch transition period (2026) as a great victory and drawing a veil over the pathetically miniscule gains – all low single figures – in catch allowances from Brexit day one for pretty much the only fish we Brits eat (cod, plaice, hake and sole).

Fishers, understandably, describe this as a massive betrayal; but then betrayal and failure to deliver is second nature to Johnson and hard-baked into Brexit. What oven-ready Brexit did achieve almost immediately was the destruction of the shellfish industry – but that’s a betrayal we have covered elsewhere.

Johnson, with his allergy to truth and fine detail, absolutely refuses to recognise reality and fess up to the fact that the EU has every right to exercise sanctions for breaches of the deal. It’s there in black and white and Johnson signed up to it.

Under the agreement 25% overall of the existing EU quota in UK waters will be transferred to the UK over a 5 ½ year period to 30 June 2026, with specific percentages of annually agreed Total Allowable Catches (TACs) agreed for each fishing stock. Mutual access to each other’s waters will be through a licencing system for fishing vessels. After 2026 negotiations on access and share of stocks will take place on an annual basis, although provisions exist for multiannual agreements. Any disagreement will be resolved through arbitration and provisions exists for trade measures to be applied by either party if the Agreement is breached.

The reaction to the TCA from the fishing industry was not positive. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) described it as

“very disappointing”,108 while the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) said: “[We] want to state strongly that [we disagree] with the Government’s presentation of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement as a major success when it is clear to the industry that it is not.”

What had angered the French was that the Jersey authorities had attached all sorts of extra conditions to the new slew of licences for the coming year and with little or no warning that they would do so.

Since the TCA stipulates that fishing arrangements should continue as before in waters between 6 and 12 miles of the UK’s waters, the extra demands effectively constitute a breach. Annick Girardin, French minister for maritime affairs, made a swift connection between the ending of the fishing and single market energy provision agreements, a connection that is embedded in the TCA.

She told the French Assembly:

“The agreement contains retaliatory measures. Well, we are ready to use these retaliatory measures; Europe, France has the means, it is written into the agreement. So as far as Jersey is concerned, I would remind you, for example of the transport of electricity by sub-marine cables. So we have the means, and, sorry it has come to this, we will do so if we have to.”

A number of Jersey fishers came out in support, not least because a large percentage of their own catch ends up in France and they really understand (in a way that Johnson and his team do not or will not) the importance of good relations with their nearest trading partner.

Le Masurier said: ‘The government went out there and told them “don’t worry – as long as you have fished for ten days in 2017, 2018 or 2019 then you will be given a licence and can carry on”. But on Friday afternoon the licences were issued with all these conditions attached. It came to Monday morning and some could not go fishing.

‘I know one fisherman who has been told he can fish for 11 days between now and 13 April next year. There is another in Carteret who fishes for scallops, whelks and lobster who has only been given a licence for whelks. He has now got 720 lobster pots that are going to have to be taken away. When you see things like that happening you can start to understand why these people are upset.’

At the time of signing the TCA, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen said:

 “It was worth fighting for this deal because we now have a fair and balanced agreement with the UK, which will protect our European interests, ensure fair competition, and provide much needed predictability for our fishing communities. Finally, we can leave Brexit behind us and look to the future. Europe is now moving on.”

And as German MEP Terry Reintke wrote as the European Parliament signed off the deal :

It seems that Reintke’s cynicism was wholly justified, whilst von der Leyen’s optimism that all was settled was not. ‘Perfidious Albion‘ appears to be an aspirational moniker for Johnson and his cabinet, not an indictment of our morality. The piratical, ‘buccaneering’ power, flouting the rule of law, stuffing its personal treasure chests and generally ramming its sense of entitled superiority down the world’s collective throat clearly has attractions for some in our society. It is sobering (terrifying?) to reflect that this divisive strategy is straight out of the Putin/Bannon/Koch playbook.

A rise in nationalism strengthens all the world’s tinpot despots (including the wannabes like Marine le Pen) and brings Putin’s ambition of a fracturing and, ultimately, fractured Europe closer to fruition.

Those of us who hold progressive, internationalist positions and value truth, integrity and the rule of law are facing a long battle to counter these dark forces. Results like that in Hartlepool today do not help morale in the short term, but they must strengthen our resolve. It’s worth noting that the Conservative won with support from only 22 per cent of the electorate, but where are the majority who did not vote at all? Are they willing to stand by and watch us all suffer the fate of the fishers – lied to, betrayed and exploited for political and financial gain and to meet the will of the Kremlin?

We’re better than this. We deserve better than this. Surely!

Look out for details coming soon on our next WCB Q&A panel session on 26 May: How do we fix our broken democracy?

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