Ursula Von Der Leyen, the EU Commission President, said two days ago that the UK has ‘made progress on most issues’ being negotiated. They have reached agreement on nearly everything other than fisheries. The EU wants to continue fishing in British waters, and Boris won’t let them. Inexplicably, she said this too: ‘We ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen.’ Predictability and stability? Is that really what Boris is withholding from Spanish trawlers? The words are commonplace (for a politician) and they are reasonable. We all need stability and predictability in government. But they are a bizarre thing to ask for because Boris is giving EU fisheries all the predictability and stability they could want. They will stably be banned from fishing our waters, and can predict that they will need to go somewhere else.
Lots of people think the decision to stand with our fishermen is a mistake. All of their arguments seem to revolve around the size of the fishing industry in the UK, especially the fact that fishing employed 12,000 people in 2019. There are two responses to this. To begin with, I concede that the fishing industry is small; nonetheless, if it small because EU fishing companies have bullied fishermen out of their own waters, its current size is irrelevant. The EU steals nearly 700,000 tons of fish from British waters every year, and the UK imports a similar amount. Our fisheries aren’t small for lack of demand. The government is standing with our remaining fishermen precisely because the EU has diminished the industry.
Secondly, the UK will always be a maritime nation. We are an island which controlled the seas for centuries, and this history is imprinted in our culture. Places like the National Maritime Museum show how rich the contribution is. From grand figureheads and paintings to personal items, like ‘tissue squares printed with details of sad or notable events,’ preserved ‘like pressed flowers’ between the leaves of books. Some rumour that the high prevalence of tattooing in the UK is a sailor’s behaviour that landlubbers copied. Did you know that steam-liners used to print their own ship’s newspaper? One of these was even named ‘The Ocean Times.’ I cannot think of anything more wonderfully British than being on a large chunk of floating metal, miles away from civilisation, but nonetheless insisting you read your daily newspaper.
French MEP Nathalie Loiseau said something which gets to the heart of the matter: ‘Nobody is denying the return of sovereignty to the UK on its waters…But does it include the fish in the water?’ Loiseau failed to see that sovereign waters have no value without the fish. But doesn’t the EU make mistakes like this constantly? After all, what is the value of controlling borders but not who passes through them? Or the value of electing representatives who cannot make laws on our behalf? Generally, it seems eurocrats fail to see that being a member state loses its value if you can’t be a country anymore.
Our fishermen and fisherwomen are more than a suffocated industry. They are a community seeking recognition. This is why Ursula cannot say what she really means: she is asking us to abandon a part of who we are, and Boris is right to refuse.