Throughout the highs and lows of the Brexit rollercoaster over the past five years, there has been precious little that can be regarded as consensus.
One thing we can probably agree on, however, is that of the 17,410,742 people who voted to leave the EU, most of them probably didn’t do so on the basis of fish.
The UK may have a proud history as a great maritime power, but the reality is that fishing does not currently form a fundamental pillar of our economy. Contributing £1.2bn a year, the fishing industry makes up less than 0.1 per cent of the economy, and is responsible for a mere 24,000 jobs. Financial services, in contrast, is worth over 100 times that.
Reclaiming Britain’s fishing waters was of course mentioned during the EU referendum campaign, but only in passing. Far more compelling and loudly trumpeted was the suggestion that the £350m the UK sent to the EU each week (gross, of course, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story) could be spent on the NHS, and the offer of tightening the UK’s migration rules without interference from Brussels.
And yet, with 20 days to go before the end of the transition period and negotiators frantically trying to hammer out an eleventh hour deal, everything seems stuck on who is entitled to the fish in the area within 200 miles from the British coastline.
Both the time spent agonising over this issue and the anger it appears to evoke is utterly disproportionate to the economic impact — on the EU’s side as well as the UK’s. Some of the 27 EU member states don’t even have fishing fleets. You might have thought that two partners who do hundreds of billions of pounds worth of trade would be eager to find a way around the issue of a few fish. Sadly, even this week’s dinner of scallops and turbot between Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen does not seem to have moved the dial.
This intransigence is worth considering in response to the argument that a so-called “soft Brexit” was ever on the table.
This narrative has been gaining momentum in recent weeks: that a compromise deal that would enable the UK to leave the EU but maintain a close political and trading relationship, perhaps within the Single Market, was there for the taking, had both sides just acted more responsibly. If the Tory Brexiteers had been prepared to soften their demands, or if Remainer hardliners had not spent years trying to overturn the referendum result, perhaps the chaos of the no-deal cliff edge we now face in January could have been averted.
Such a narrative is comforting for those desperate for someone — Theresa May, David Davis, Keir Starmer, the Lib Dems — to blame. It is also nonsense.
The key argument of the Brexit campaign was that Britain should be able to “take back control”. But take back control of what? Migration? Finances? Regulations? Fish? The beauty of this slogan was that each voter could decide for themselves. The point was not what taking back control of these areas would actually enable the UK to do, but simply that it would once more have the power to decide for itself.
This was how the Leave campaign was able to unite two very different constituencies — free marketeers eager to open up the British economy to the world beyond Europe, and “left behind” Labour-leaning communities seeking protection from the forces of free trade and globalisation — under the banner of a single political cause. Whether you’re on the left or the right, the argument was that decisions should be made by the UK government, not bureaucrats in Brussels.
It is also why “soft Brexit” was never a realistic option. If the aim of leaving the EU was to pursue “sovereignty” in and of itself, any concession of power to Brussels, however small or specific, means selling out. The haggling and horse trading that is the staple of any trade deal, with compromises offered for the sake of a mutually beneficial outcome, is impossible if one Brexit faction’s acceptable concession is not only another’s uncrossable red line, but breaches the fundamental purpose of the project.
Remainers might think that there was an opportunity to meet Brexiteers in the middle. But in the same way that you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t take back a little bit of control. Either Britain can make its own rules on immigration, decide its own industrial policy, and enjoy dominion over its own fishing waters, or it can’t. You can argue about whether making some concessions might lead to a more harmonious and prosperous outcome overall, but if the only consistent goal is sovereignty at all times and in all ways, the debate is irrelevant.
And that’s what is missing from the bickering about fish. People voting for Brexit may not have been too bothered about who is allowed to catch which fish where, but they cared deeply about that decision being made by the UK for the UK. Any potential deal that undermines that independence is politically unconscionable.
And not even sharing a plate of scallops is going to change that.
Main image credit: Getty