The drones won’t do it


“One unintended consequence of Brexit is that Ireland finds itself for the first time in its history on the stronger side of the table in negotiations with the UK,” noted Brigid Laffan, Director of the Global Governance Programme at the European University Institute, Florence, in the Guardian (23 November).

Leo Varadkar knows it. He has repeated his warning that he will block Britain’s progress to the second stage of negotiations with the EU unless he receives a binding commitment that there will be no hard Irish border.

Arlene Foster, party leader of the tiny DUP faction that props up May in Westminster, called it blackmail. The Sun spat fury from its gutter: “Leo Varadkar should shut his gob.” The Government’s lackeys are whipping up outrage that an Irish premier should try to interfere with “our” Brexit. One would think it had nothing to do with him.

In fact the Irish border has been near the top of the EU’s concerns ever since the referendum vote: it has always been known that the UK would have to clear this hurdle, and that the failure to get it right would entail serious economic consequences for both parts of Ireland. Worse, there might be dangerous political consequences. Leo Varadkar has every right to be worried.

So does Britain, but more of that later.

It is still the Government’s position, rejected by the EU, that the border issue can’t be settled until trade talks have begun because the two are related. This is convincing for the first few seconds until you think about it. Then you realise that the problem is that the British government has two mutually irreconcilable imperatives – the border needs to be material enough to present an obstacle to goods and people, and immaterial enough to be invisible – and that problem cannot be solved by discussing trade or anything else; it can only be solved by discussing the problem itself.

To put it another way, as Brigid Laffan crisply does, the Government’s argument is bogus because “There is no future trade deal available to the UK that will lead to frictionless trade if it leaves the single market and customs union.”

The keyword here is “frictionless.” That is what the border needs to be. It’s a word the Government likes, but it doesn’t seem to understand what it means. “Frictionless” means without custom declarations, tariffs, non-tariff barriers, that sort of thing. To get that, you  have to pay a price. The Government won’t pay it.

The rational solution to the border problem is for Britain to stay in the customs union and single market. Over May’s dead body will it do either. The reasons for this are not particularly obvious.

Theresa May, when she took office, did not have to embrace hard Brexit. She did not have to turn her back on the two brilliant ideas that bound the EEC, later the EU, together and made it the second largest economy in the world. After all, we hadn’t been told in the referendum campaign that this was what leaving the EU would entail. We had been explicitly told that this was what it would not entail.

Was the power balance in what would necessarily become her cabinet already so weighted in favour of the numpties? Whatever the cause, she made her choice, and then, some nine months after the vote, she made a serious mistake. She called an election.

The result was catastrophic for pretty well everyone involved. She lost her majority, and we got the DUP.

I have expressed my opinion of that party, and the shabby pact the Government made with it, in a previous post (, but I focused then on the fact that this narrow sectarian group would enable May to cling on to a mandate which the electorate had just denied her. It was not yet clear how much the DUP would affect the Brexit negotiations. It’s clear now.

Northern Ireland voted by 56% to 44% to remain in the EU. Among the 44% were the supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party, which wants a hard Brexit and has become the fall-back bulwark defending it. As long as Theresa May is dependent on these 10 MPs for her hold on power, there can be no possibility of a rethink on the single market and customs union, no special customs deal or regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland (the DUP can’t allow the six counties to be marked off in any way from the mainland UK), and of course no question of moving the border to the Irish Sea, which would likewise solve the problem.

By ruling out these avenues, the DUP makes inevitable what everyone agrees can’t be countenanced: a hard border, with surveillance cameras, checkpoints, customs posts…   With breathtaking inconsistency, it doesn’t want a hard border, either. It’s afraid it might be bad for Ulster’s farmers.

It will, and not Ulster’s farmers alone. It will hugely complicate the lives and businesses of hundreds of thousands of Irish people in both the north and the south. Eighty per cent of Ireland’s trade goes through the UK; if there’s a hard border, goods passing through it will be subject to tariffs, inspection and delays. A third of Northern Ireland’s milk goes south across the border every day to be made into cheese, butter and infant formula. Some dairy farmers will go out of business.

Many other items, at present seamlessly, go back and forth: Guinness crosses the border twice before it’s shipped out from Dublin. Between 23,000 and 30,000 people, living in the north and working in the south, or vice versa, commute, hardly aware of it since the border is invisible; farmers cross it several times a day from one field to another; people visit relatives. Dogs are walked, horses are ridden, along roads on which, if the border comes back, they’ll need documents.

When the EU taskforce dealing with Brexit and the border listed specific areas of collaborative activity that would be adversely affected by Brexit, it found no less than 142. They ranged from security coordination against paramilitary threats to bus routes.

However, the strongest argument against a hard border is that it might undermine the still-fragile peace process.

Someone left a pipe bomb at Omagh two weeks ago. Dissident republicans are out there. A hard border starts as a soft target: all the bomber has to do is attack a single customs post. Then all the customs posts along the border will have to be fortified, and his job is done. This idea is dismissed in London as fantasy. It is not dismissed in Ireland.

It’s not just in relation to the border that the British Government is shamefully neglecting its responsibilities, or that the DUP is behaving like a spoilt child in a sweetshop. Power-sharing in Belfast broke down in January as the result of a scandal involving the DUP and a green energy scam. As conditions for power-sharing to resume, Sinn Féin want equal status for the Irish language and the ban on same-sex marriage in the province lifted. The DUP want Ulster Scots (spoken by a much smaller percentage than speak Irish) included in the language clause, and believe that same-sex relationships are sinful.

After a lengthy stand-off, Westminster will soon have to resume direct rule. Nobody wants direct rule – certainly Westminster doesn’t – but Arlene Foster last week sounded not too upset at the prospect.

Sinn Féin are upset at the prospect. The reason is both glaring and shocking. The peace in Ireland is founded on the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement is based on power-sharing. Power-sharing is partly based on the principle that the British Government, which is one of the guarantors of the Agreement, is politically neutral. Direct rule is undesirable but not against the principles of the Agreement; but the present British Government is kept in office by the DUP, which is one of the parties to the power-sharing.

Naturally the DUP does not acknowledge that this is a problem. Well, it wouldn’t, would it? It got a cool billion out of its deal with May. And the Government can’t acknowledge it because it can’t do without the DUP’s support in Parliament. It defeated the Labour amendment to retain European law on fundamental rights by 10 votes.

The terrible truth about this government is that it doesn’t give a damn about anything but its own survival. Ireland can go hang. Ireland is, of course, aware of this attitude.

But now Ireland, which used to be a friend (how stupid of the government to lose that friendship), has turned hostile, and what is May to do? It is desperately urgent to get trade talks going: she has to solve the Irish riddle, and on EU terms. Her proffered solution (drones, electronic registration) has been rejected. The EU is steering her towards the single market and customs union but, in addition to a humiliating U-turn, that means facing down the Brexiteers and junking the DUP. She is afraid of the Brexiteers, and if she junks the DUP she loses power.

If she had courage, and understood more about what she is doing, and could find it in herself to trust the British people, she would tell them the truth and put the future of the country where it belongs, in their hands.

That is not going to happen. She is heading for the edge, and taking the country with her. Unless it wakes up.

If it doesn’t, there is yet hope for Ireland. It is that, if Brexit drags Northern Ireland out of the EU, against the wishes of most of its population, the Ireland-wide poll about reunification that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement is held, and returns a “yes” answer.

But it would be so much better if the Irish could be left to do that when they’re ready; if we could have our own poll first, and junk Brexit, May and the DUP in one fell swoop, and then welcome in the dawn.



Hurry up please it’s time


Theresa May panics easily. A tide has started to run against Brexit. It has to be stopped.

The date on which the UK leaves the European Union will be “enshrined” in law, according to an amendment the Prime Minister proposed ten days ago. It is to be 11 pm on 29 March 2019. The shrine is a bit off kilter because everyone assumed it would be midnight, but it can’t be because it has to be midnight in Brussels as well, and on 29 March Britain will still be on GMT. This neatly encapsulates the power relationship between Britain and the EU, but in the Commons nobody cared about that except Frank Field, who made a valiant attempt to bring back unicorns by suggesting we postpone the time of departure by an hour, by which time it would be the next day, but only in Europe.

The Commons took no notice: it had the entire EU Withdrawal Bill to chew its way through. Nevertheless, the PM’s unexpected bit of law-making caused a furious Tory rebellion. Harsh words were spoken: “Utterly foolish” – Kenneth Clarke; “pointless” – Tom Tugendhat; “incoherent and thoroughly stupid” – former attorney general Dominic Grieve. Grieve announced his intention of voting against the Government whatever was done to him. Goodness knows what he thought might be done to him, but the Daily Telegraph was in a nasty mood, plastering the photographs of Tory rebels across its front page as if inviting readers to get up a posse.

The obvious fear, shared across parties, is that the amendment could force the country out of the EU before it is ready to leave. It tied the Government’s hands, said numerous speakers; it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre; it might “come back to haunt us.”  That it would leave no room for last-minute manoeuvre was of course the point. Keir Starmer was right to call it “a desperate gimmick.” It has a whiff of the suicide bomb about it. But May perhaps does not see that. Who knows what she sees?

Starmer pointed out that it could stand in the way of an orderly transition. Others connected it with another of May’s bright ideas, that the final deal, having been voted on by Parliament, should also be enshrined in statute. They said this offer would be made meaningless by fixing the date of the UK’s departure, because there would probably not be enough time to pass the legislation before the date elapsed.

The matter of the parliamentary vote on the deal is sunk in as deep a morass of confusion as anything else to do with Brexit, which is saying a great deal. The confusion became heated when David Davis a few weeks ago informed a Parliamentary select committee that, because the EU negotiations might go to the wire, there might not be time for Parliament to vote on the deal, and had to be contradicted first by the Prime Minister and then by his own department before he had the sense to contradict himself and thereby restore the illusion that this is a democracy. The question was not satisfactorily laid to rest, and Wednesday’s stormy debate resurrected it. Nor has anyone explained how negotiations could “go to the wire” on 29 March 2019 when they are supposed to be concluded by next October.

The Prime Minister’s proposal to put the final deal which Parliament had accepted into law was an attempt to reassure the country that there would be a vote, and that it would be “meaningful” in that it would be taken before Britain left.

However, it would not be meaningful in any other sense, because it would give MPs only the choice of accepting whatever terms the Government had negotiated or leaving the EU without a deal. This is what the Government has always intended, ever since, under pressure, it deigned to allow a parliamentary vote at all. Anna Soubry described this “concession” (yes, that is what the Government is calling it) as “insulting.”

Roughly half the Commons seems disinclined to worship at the shrine. The Government has been warned it must rewrite the date amendment or face defeat in a Commons vote in December.

This unlooked-for defiance has set the Government running in dazed circles. One source said that a “possible solution was for the Government to fix the date but make it clear it would try to extend Article 50 if an act of parliament approving the withdrawal agreement was not passed in time for that date” (Guardian 17 November).

In which case, what is meant by “fixing the date”?

David Davis dropped shrouded hints that the Government might abandon its amendment. The Government denied it was thinking of any such thing. It said, in the tones we have come to know and love, “What this amendment does is provide certainty over our position that we are leaving the EU on 29 March 2019.”

Just before it issued this statement, a source in Whitehall divulged that the Government was “trying to think of a way of watering down its amendment without taking out its reference to 11 pm on 29 March 2019” (Guardian, 17 November. My italics).

Fortunately, sanity still rules in the EU. The 27 have sought a legal opinion from the European Commission on the possible extension of the two years allowed for talks under Article 50. The 27 do not envision a lengthy extension: one diplomat explained, “This extension would only be if we are near striking a deal and need a few extra weeks or months” (Guardian, 17 November.)

Another thing the EU is doing is preparing for a no-deal Brexit.

The drumbeat in Westminster for no deal has been growing louder in the past weeks. May continues to say it is not what she wants, while seeming clueless about how to prevent it. To get a Brexit deal, she has to do the second stage of talks. To do the second stage of talks, she has to get through the first stage. To get through the first stage, she has to resolve the budget contribution, citizens’ rights and the border.

The budget, as I write, is being discussed at an urgent meeting of the Cabinet; more must be offered (more is owed!), but an increase in the contribution will be politically explosive. An agreement on citizens’ rights may be within sight; nothing of the kind is in sight on the Irish border, a conundrum May cannot resolve because she has blocked herself in by refusing to stay in the single market or customs union. The Taoiseach has threatened to block progress to second-stage talks unless Britain commits itself in writing  (don’t they trust us?) to no hard border and a continuation of the Common Travel Area.

It doesn’t look possible without a radical shift in thinking at the top. This is why, despite a mounting chorus of alarm from business and the direst warnings of what will happen, we are heading, it seems inexorably, for a no-deal Brexit.

Will it really be so bad? Yes, it will be an absolute disaster. I will talk about this in another post; meanwhile there’s a manageable summary on the BBC website by Chris Morris, 14 October. Even the BBC thinks it’s not a terribly good idea. Who could possibly want this near-doomsday scenario?

Well, some people do and they have their reasons. They don’t talk about most of them, but they will point with satisfaction to the House of Lords judgement in March that, if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, it will probably have no legal obligation to pay into the budget. The judgement adds that not paying would “antagonise the rest of the EU and further sour relations. Legal action … could not be ruled out.” But I can’t see no-dealers being bothered by a spot of French colère.

These are the people pulling May’s strings, and the amendment seeking to fix the date of Brexit is intended to reassure them. In spite of her constant reiteration that there can be no monkeying about with Article 50, Theresa May isn’t so sure. She is said to have taken legal advice on whether Brexit can be revoked; she is not telling anyone what answer came back. There is for her an unnerving possibility that negotiations might stretch out, the EU might prove inconveniently accommodating over the date and Brexit may vanish in the tangled grass. Fixing the date both removes that danger – it’s a guillotine – and puts enormous pressure on those innocent souls who are still striving to make negotiations work.

May’s puppeteers don’t want a good deal, they want no deal, and they presumably welcome the increasing evidence that a good deal can’t be negotiated. Closing off a genuinely free vote solves half their problem; fixing the date solves the other half because it provides cover. They don’t want time. Time will make the Government’s failure more apparent. It is not really a failure, of course: it’s a betrayal.

And afterwards, when there are a million pieces to be picked up, the Government can disclaim responsibility. It was constrained by the law, which the House of Commons voted for.

This monstrous trap is quite simply dealt with.

If there is no alternative to “no deal”, then the alternative to no deal is no Brexit.






All honourable men




“Everyone with an ISA is involved in tax avoidance.” So said Lord Sassoon, former Treasury minister and beneficiary of a trust fund based in the Bahamas, amidst the furore that broke a week ago.

The very rich can be very obtuse. Equating a saver who has a few hundred pounds in an ISA and is earning 0.25% interest on it with, for instance, a sports celebrity who has just-about-legally avoided paying £220 million in VAT on a private jet by registering it in the Isle of Man is not just ridiculous, it’s an insult. Lord Sassoon should apologise to ISA holders. He won’t, of course.

The so-called Paradise Papers, 3.4 million confidential documents leaked by the offshore tax firm Appleby, lift a curtain on the world of what are repulsively known as “high net worth individuals.” They offer a baffling insight into the web of practices used by such people to hide their wealth in places where it can’t be taxed. The practices are convoluted, opaque, bizarre, but all basically dedicated to concealing who owns what. Sometimes even the accountants don’t know what’s going on.

As Molly Scott Cato, MEP, said in relation to the Panama Papers last year, Britain is right at the heart of this web. “More than half the companies listed were registered in the British Virgin Islands, and the data showed that other overseas territories and countries with a rather murky relationship with the City of London dominate that data.”

The Tories are on the wrong side of this, in the nature of things. They are traditionally the party of the privileged and propertied. New Labour may have been “relaxed” about extreme wealth, but it was Margaret Thatcher who made the ambition to be filthy rich respectable, and it was the Conservatives who recently cut the 50% tax rate and lowered corporation tax.

True to form, the Government last month voted down Labour amendments to the finance bill which would have forced UK beneficiaries of overseas trusts to declare their sources of property and income on a public register. Theresa May is still refusing to commit herself to a public inquiry or to having open registers for shell companies and secret trusts. Note that these are merely requirements for ending secrecy, not for changing the substance of the law, let alone for hanging the rich from lamp-posts.

However, the Government is merely being logical. The end of secrecy spells the beginning of the end of the practice, because the squirrelling away of money where the taxman can’t get at it is thoroughly hated – by people who don’t have large sums to squirrel, could not afford the services of tax accountants and, most important of all, are the ones who stand to lose. It is also deeply distasteful to many well-heeled citizens who have both the motive and the ability to engage in it, but who understand that it is corrosive of society.

What could all that money do if paid in full to the Treasury and put to its proper use? A recent study part-authored by the economist Gabriel Zucman ( found that wealthy Brits had stashed about £300 billion –  equivalent to 15% of national GDP – in offshore tax havens. “This would more than cover our entire educational budget into the 2020s. It is the equivalent of £350 million being paid into the NHS every week for the next 16 years…”

Oh, there it is, that £350 million!

The avoidance or evasion of tax – the first is legal, the second is not, but, whatever you call it, the result is the same – robs public services of the funds they need and contributes to an inequality which is already of shocking dimensions. Do we want to live in a civilised society? Then we have to do something about it.

Current suggestions are directed at abolishing the secrecy. By an Order of Council, the Government could force overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands to adopt tax transparency measures. “We could change the rules on Lords and Commons’ members’ interests so that all offshore holdings would have to be registered” (Aditya Chakraborrty, Guardian 7 Nov.) Zucman has called for the creation of a worldwide tax register.

Any of this would be a welcome first step. However, transparency is not enough. A lobby group representing offshore business spoke of having “superb penetration” at the higher levels of the UK government before the G8 summit in June 2013. It congratulated itself when measures far less radical than those originally proposed were agreed.  A country in which that can happen should look hard at itself.

Here is the same point made more uncomfortably: “We’re not just complicit in what happens, we are central to its success,” said Margaret Hodge, MP, former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, in a recent adjournment debate on tax avoidance and evasion on the Isle of Man (zero tax on companies). She said funds from the British taxpayer were being used to enable the island to operate as a tax haven.

And here, perhaps, is part of the (intolerable) explanation: “HMRC is colonised by the tax avoidance industry and large corporations, who dominate its operations and are, in effect, allowed to write tax law” (Guardian, 6 November, article by Prem Sikka, Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex). (My italics.)

Readers half-stunned by that last piece of information might reflect that David Cameron slashed the number of HMRC staff by 11,000 and that Theresa May plans to cut another 8,000.

It is legitimate to ask, in the light of this, whom our Government serves. It is not us, the people. Whom does Whitehall serve? The Government: that is its purpose. But, some will say, it is precisely for this reason that “the people” voted to leave the EU in the referendum; that vote was largely a protest about the way the country had been governed for decades in the interests of an elite.

Very well. Whom does Brexit serve?

Leave.EU was set up as a wholly-owned subsidiary of a finance firm based in Gibraltar that offered tax avoidance services. It specialised in “separating and relocating intellectual property and treasury functions to low- or no-tax jurisdictions.” Arron Banks, who contributed £8.5 million to Farage’s campaign, had been a substantial shareholder in the parent company (Guardian, 7 November 2015).

The association of Brexit with people who keep their money overseas is documented in a Guardian article of 9 November this year, ‘The Brexiters who put their money offshore.’ Here Arron Banks appears again, as co-owner of the Isle of Man’s Conister Bank, among whose clients was a businessman whose gambling firm was pursued by the US Dept of Justice for allegedly laundering billions of dollars in illegal proceeds. Charges remain outstanding. Banks himself is under investigation by the Electoral Commission for his contribution to Leave.EU’s funds.

Another familiar figure is Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has interests in an emerging markets fund in the Cayman Islands and Singapore. Andrea Leadsom’s brother-in-law runs a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund from Guernsey.  Brexiteer James Mellon owns the Hoxton Pony in Shoreditch, which apparently is very hip, through an obscure arrangement involving a UK-registered company owned by an Isle of Man company with four shareholders. The Barclay brothers, who live in the Channel Islands and Monaco and whose Daily Telegraph is an unfailing source of poisonous misinformation about Europe, cloak their financial affairs behind a nominee shareholding in which their names do not appear on the register.

There is no suggestion, the Guardian emphasises, that any of the individuals it mentions are suspected of criminality. Of course not. We are talking about tax avoidance. They are all honourable men. But the argument has moved beyond that. It has moved into the sphere of morality, and it needs to move into what is legitimate in politics.

In January 2013 the European Union produced an action plan for new legislation that would end tax-avoiding practices among its member states. The plan came to fruition in the Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive, published on 28 January 2016  (https://ec.europa/taxation_customs/business/company-tax/anti-tax-avoidance-package_en).

As Prime Minister, David Cameron fought a doughty campaign against the EU measures.  It is instructive to see how at two crucial points the lead-up to Brexit chimed exactly with the EU’s progress on tax reform. On 23 January 2013, less than a month after the EU presented its draft plan for the Directive, Cameron made a speech at Bloomberg in which he spoke of holding a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU.

Three years later, on 20 February 2016, within a month of the EU’s adoption of the Directive, he announced the date on which the referendum would be held.

The EU had stipulated the date by which the Directive has to be implemented by member states. It is 1 January 2019. That is just short of three months before the UK has to leave the Union. Theresa May is now exercising what little power she has to ensure that the departure date is written into British law.

A bit close, eh? But still…

The EU is now, after talking about it for a long time, drawing up a blacklist of tax havens. The UK’s favourite children – the Virgin Islands, the Caymans, Anguilla et al. – will be fingered. The list is expected in December.

That is close. On the other hand, who’s going to take any notice of a blacklist? Britain will soon be shot of the EU and all its works.

It’s impossible, at this point, not to see the apparition looming out of the fog that has long surrounded Brexit. It has been there all along, but it shuns publicity as vampires do the daylight. It cannot live with transparency, which means it cannot live with the EU and its meddlesome directives. The Brexit negotiations may appear to be a shambles; the Government is a shambles: for the vampire, none of this matters. Hard Brexit? The harder the better.

Get out quick and cut the rope.



Is this one of our fish?




As I write, we are eight weeks past Fish Dependence Day.

This is a date calculated by the New Economics Foundation to represent the start of the annual period during which the UK is dependent for its fish supplies on other countries. This year it was September 6.

Whose fault is this shocking state of affairs? Brexiters have no doubt it’s the EU’s. Britain must take back control of its fish stocks, bellowed Nigel Farage from his boat, as he led Fishing for Leave’s flotilla up the Thames in June 2016. Through his loud-hailer, he informed Bob Geldof that fishing communities were being destroyed by the EU’s fisheries policy.

Geldof, leading the less flamboyant counter-flotilla, called Farage (correctly) a fraud and charged that, when he was on the European Parliament’s Fishing Committee, Farage had attended precisely one meeting out of 43.

A factual rebuttal of Farage’s claim was left to Greenpeace’s director, John Sauven. “The distribution of fishing rights within the UK’s fleet is entirely the responsibility of the UK’s fisheries minister,” he stated. He said the problem lay with the concentration of the UK’s fishing quotas in the hands of a few large operators, some of whom, he said, were in Farage’s flotilla.

This hit an important nail squarely on the head. Fisheries account for less than 1% of the country’s GDP, but the emotional significance of the Hull trawler, the Grimsby fishing smack, the Scottish herring boat, coming in at dawn is huge. We are a maritime nation and fishing is a powerful symbol in our iconography.

There is hypocrisy in this because, as fishermen and fisherwomen would point out, we don’t give them a second thought when we complain about the price of plaice. However, that doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real. It is a sentiment deeply woven into the Union flag, and it was what Farage appealed to.

As so often, he knew what he was doing.

And, as so often, what he was doing was deeply dishonest.

It was easy to do because fishing has been a source of trouble ever since Britain joined what was then the EEC.  The EEC did not act from the highest motives: it rushed a draft of the Common Fisheries Policy through the Council of Ministers in October 1970 just as the UK, Ireland, Norway and Denmark began negotiations for entry.

“This robbed the four, all big fishing nations with an 80 per cent share of western Europe’s coastal waters, of any say in framing a policy where their legitimate interests far outweighed those of the Six. The basic principle of the CFP – that fishing vessels of all member states could fish in each other’s coastal waters ‘up to the beaches’ – would have been rejected by the four had they been in on the negotiations. As it was, they were presented with a fait accompli” (Routledge Guide to the European Union, p. 176).

Norway refused the terms in a referendum in 1972. The UK, Ireland and Denmark reluctantly accepted. Since then the CFP has been revised and reformed several times, most recently in 2014, but its main provisions still are that the Union’s waters are open to all EU fishermen within a 200-mile limit from the Atlantic coasts, or up to a median line between countries, with the exception of a 12-mile inshore zone reserved for their own fleets.

The EU fixes “total allowable catches” at an annual meeting of the Council of Ministers. These are intended to prevent overfishing. The Union’s primary goal remains “by setting quotas, to redress the effect of long-standing overfishing and stock depletion, thereby ensuring sustainable fisheries and guaranteeing incomes and stable jobs for fishermen” (Routledge Guide).

Most UK fishing communities would say that the last of those goals, guaranteeing incomes and stable jobs for fishermen, is exactly what the EU has failed to do. A poll before the 2016 referendum showed that 92% of fishers backed the Leave campaign, “largely because of the perceived failures of the Common Fisheries Policy and under-allocation of fish quotas to the UK.” 1

They have a good case, on the face of it. There has been a collapse of the fishing industry and its communities that invites comparison with the destruction of the mining industry under Margaret Thatcher. Where there were once a hundred boats in the harbour, there are now twenty. Where there were twenty, there are none. The young people leave, the old are bitter. They ask why this has happened to them.

It’s the fault of Brussels, the British government has always replied, if it bothered to reply at all.

But John Sauven was quite right in saying it is London, not Brussels, that allocates fishing quotas within the UK. The EU sets the tonnage of specific fish that can be caught in EU waters, and divides this among member states. The quota each country receives is based largely on how much it fished in the specified areas before the CFP came into effect. This disadvantages the UK, which in the 1970s fished extensively in Icelandic waters, from which it is now barred.

Once the UK’s total has been awarded, it is up to the British government to allocate it to the national fishing fleet. British governments have a prejudice against small operators. Boats under 10 metres long make up the great majority of the UK fishing fleet, but receive a tiny fraction of the available quota. There was media outrage three years ago over the discovery that a giant Dutch vessel, the Cornelis Vrolijk, was taking roughly a quarter of the total UK catch; operating out of  Hull, it flew the British flag, but landed its entire catch in Holland.

“This system doesn’t work in favour of local, small-scale fisheries and the communities that rely on them,” says the New Economics Foundation.2  “Nor does it support sustainable, less profitable fishing techniques.”

The word “sustainable” is crucial here, and “profitable” is relative.

In 2012 the World Wildlife Fund estimated the European fishing fleets to be two to three times the size needed to catch the available fish. There is still huge overcapacity. Stocks are overfished: by everyone. Four out of every ten fish species have been exploited beyond safe biological limits. The UK plays its part: it comes sixth in the over-fishing league and sets quotas an average of 21% above scientific advice.

The WWF estimated that if European fish stocks were allowed to recover, the fisheries dependent on them could be five times more profitable. The figures quoted for the UK by the New Economics Foundation are startling: an increase in landings of 442,000 tonnes, 392 million euros in value and 6,600 new jobs. This would make the UK self-sufficient in fish and a net fish exporter.

The EU wants fishing in its waters to be sustainable by 2020. There has been an improvement; over the past ten years, unsustainability has dropped from 90% to 60%. Some fish stocks, for instance North Sea cod, are regenerating.  The 2014 reform of the CFP will ban discarding of fish. But the drop in unsustainability won’t hit the 2020 target, and the international Our Fish campaign claims that the whole industry needs to be restructured to ensure the recovery of stocks and long-term viability.

What effect would Brexit have on all this? Not as much as Leavers think.

Britain would become an independent coastal state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This does not mean we could do what we like. Under this Convention and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, the UK would have to co-operate with neighbouring states in sustainable management of shared and trans-boundary fish stocks. (Fish move around. Nobody owns them. Nations have to co-operate.) We would need to negotiate membership with the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission. The waters in the region of the Irish border would need to be fished with particular care. Nor would we have the fish all to ourselves. Several EU countries have been fishing in what will become UK waters for centuries, and Denmark and others are arguing that under UNCLOS they will still have the right to do so.

Might they? The UK has a strong legal case, but enforcing it could lose us friends who can’t be spared. In February a leaked memo from the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries insisted that the granting of UK access to the EU domestic market after Brexit “should be conditional on continued EU access to UK waters.”

We need that market: we export most of the fish we catch, and the EU takes two-thirds of it. We have a fish-processing industry, dependent on EU trade, that is even more important, economically and socially, than the fishing itself. What are we prepared to exchange for access?

And then there’s the really big thing. The EU, for all its failures, is at least working towards sustainability. What guarantees are there that a post-Brexit UK government would do likewise?

Brexit could in theory be an opportunity for much-needed restructuring. It’s a question of whose hands Brexit is in. The present crew are wreckers. Corporate-loving, bent on deregulation, they are the last people to be entrusted with a fragile and complex ecosystem. Nor does any British government have a good record on environmental pollution.

In the end it is not the EU, and not the British government, that will set the quotas we can catch. It is the sea.

If we have any sense at all, we will look after it.


1 Economic and Social Research Council, Post-Brexit Policy in the UK: Fisheries, Seafood and the Marine Environment, 2017. 

2 New Economics Foundation, A Fair Fishing Deal for the UK,  2017.