Brexit Reflection - 150 Fateful Words - December 1970

Brexit Reflection - 150 Fateful Words - December 1970

Brexit Reflection - Those Fateful 150 words - December 1970

You would not think so few words would have such a fateful, dramatic impact on Britain and her fishing and coastal communities. They will continue to haunt and resonate as politician’s are now turned to hammering out the future relationship between the UK and EU.

The 150 words:

  1. Rules applied by each Member State in respect of fishing in the maritime waters coming under its sovereignty or within its jurisdiction shall not lead to differences in treatment of other Member States.
  2. Member States shall ensure in particular equal conditions of access to and use of the fishing grounds situated in the waters referred to in the preceding subparagraph for all fishing vessels flying the flag of a Member State and registered in Community territory. Member States shall notify other Member States and the Commission of the existing laws and administrative rules and regulations in the field referred to in the first subparagraph of paragraph 1 together with those arising out of application of the provisions referred to in the second subparagraph of that paragraph.
  3. The maritime waters referred to in this Article shall be those which are so described by the laws in force in each Member State.

These 150 words are part of the Regulation 2141/70. This is the basis from which the entire Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) spawned. Tellingly in Part 3. – the EU’s waters are only constituted by the laws of each member state. They are therefore not EU waters but still the member states – but the member states have sacrificed control to the EU.

The above text is better known as the principle of “equal access to a common resource, of non-discrimination, without increasing fishing effort”. It was to have fateful consequences for Britain’s fishermen and coastal communities.  

Britain’s fleet was sacrificed and scrapped to allow equal access for other member states increasingly powerful boats. Unlike Norway, Iceland or Faroe, the UK couldn’t exclude this ever more powerful fishing capacity. The result – 60% of the British fleet was scrapped to allow equal access to continue whilst avoiding the increase in fishing effort this represented.

This regulation became part of the Acquis Communautaire - which all members must adopt and obey. It was created hours before the 4 maritime nations of Denmark, Ireland, Norway and the UK submitted their application to join the then EEC. With the other member states salivating over the prospect of being able to access and build fishing industries on the back of the 4 maritime nations waters.

Since that date successive UK Governments have tried to mask the implication of these words, including Prime Minister Heath, who wrote to the Norwegian Prime Minister pleading with him not to disclose the full implication of these 150 words that the Norwegians realised.

The rest is history, Heath would have none of it and rammed the UK into the EEC with countless questionable assurances to parliament. When the full, dangerous implications of ‘Equal Access’ were questioned – Heath said Britain’s fishermen and rich fishing grounds were “expendable”.

In stark contrast Norway decided that sacrificing her rich fishing grounds was an intolerable price and retained her fishing independence by rejecting EEC/EU membership. So too did the Icelandic people, Greenland left over the same issue, and the Faroe Islands took the option not to join when Denmark did.

Since the conception of the EEC fishing has been the touch stone, totemic issue that has reflected nation’s either sacrificing their sovereignty and rich resources or prizing and retaining them by rejecting EU membership.

As we leave those nations who have built multi-billion pound industries on catching 60% of the fish in British waters are desperate to force the government to sacrifice Britain’s rich fishing grounds and fishing communities to the status quo. Fishing will be therefore, yet again be the “acid test” of whether sovereignty is salvaged or sacrificed.

Over the decades the Save Britain’s Fish campaign, The Fisherman’s Association Ltd, and Fishing for Leave have highlighted the implications of the CFP and the desperate need to quit it.

Because fishing had been surrendered so shamefully and was a totemic microcosm of the surrender of British sovereignty, the result those trying to highlight the situation found was vicious attack from pro-EU supporters all the way to the highest levels of government and industry.

The initial debate was significantly escalated in 1994, when Secretary of State for Scotland Ian Lang was requested by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) for his view on the Save Britain’s Fish campaign. Stating that the campaign and idea of being able to leave the CFP was “misdirected” accusing SBFs leaders of “fallacious arguments and misrepresentation of the facts” and that “It was a matter of great regret that the fishing industry is being so distracted from the real issues by this misdirected campaign.”

Project fear and sneers and jeers against those wishing to protect and regain British sovereignty is no new thing! The latest and most prominent being Bob Geldoff being deployed in cahoots with Goldman Sachs and chum George Osbourne.

Scottish Fisheries Minister Mr Robertson said in December 1995, that withdrawal from the CFP was ‘legally impossible and therefore what we want is reform of the CFP’. 

This became the standard deflection from the political establishment to any hard questioning of the detrimental effect the EU was having on Britain – “reform from within!”. Yet when asked what reforms and how they could be achieved – particularly reform from the legally enshrined principle of ‘Equal Access’ – there was no answer.

As was proved in 2015 – with the undignified site of a British Prime Minister reduced to begging round the capitals of the EU member states – reform of the EU is impossible. It is a system designed to ratchet powers only one way as it seeks to create ever close Union towards a United States of Europe. Again, fishing exemplified the consequences of membership.

So while other EU member states felt rather clever with themselves for designing a Common Fisheries Policy, with the poaching of UK waters designed at its heart since inception, fishing continually resonated as a powerful beacon of Britain’s loss of sovereignty that became increasingly difficult for the British people to accept.

It will continue to resonate as one of the biggest issues – failure to reverse the initial reprehensible surrender of Britain’s waters and resources will lead to the Conservative party continuing to be haunted by the spectre of Edward Heath.

The reversal is an easy win to achieve for the government if they have the savy and will to do so.

Upon leaving the EU treaties – and all the regulations such as the CFP that take their authority from the treaties – “shall cease to apply”.

Britain will automatically revert to international law under UNCLOS. This bestows independent coastal states with exclusive sovereign rights over all waters and resources within their Exclusive Economic Zone. As Britain only ever surrendered her right to control her waters - not the waters themselves under Point 3. of Regulation 2141/70 – then we already have the waters and will additionally automatically have full control.

Sadly the 11 month Transition delays this as although we officially terminate our membership of the EU on the 31st January 2020 we re-obey all EU laws – including the CFP – until 1st January 2021.

The key now that will determine whether the “acid test” of fishing is redeemed is that on this date the UK must have FULL, exclusive sovereignty over all waters and resources and must not roll across the current exploitationary EU access and quota shares that have seen the EU appropriate 75% of the quotas yet Britain contributes 50% of the waters and 60% of the catches to the common EU pot.

It is this expropriation of what should otherwise be British resources by right of international law – coupled with the British fleet being scrapped to accommodate equal access – that enrages fishermen and the public.

As can be seen on the map above Britain (and Norway) will then have the lions share of all the fishing waters and internationally agreed fishing management zones off the coast of continental Europe. The EU will be reduced to a junior partner having to follow Britain and Norway’s lead.

Allowing Britain to both completely abrogate the exploitationary conditions the CFP has created, and reduce the EU to junior partner status in the NE Atlantic, is clearly not on the EU agenda. They intend keeping the freebie and expect to keep dominance over the direction of fisheries policy.

The EU is showing it will resort to any tactics, bribery and hollow threats to retain the present position  - so much for those who say fishing is insignificant.

It is good that the EU has exposed its bullying position on Fisheries sooner rather than later. It means the British political establishment cannot try to diminish the importance of fishing or sweep it under the carpet to agree a dodgy deal to appease the EU.

Fishing has been the constant thread throughout our tangled relationship with the EU. It is firmly imbedded in the public conscious. Failure to take back control of all waters and resources within our EEZ, and to end equal access and the current exploitationary quota shares, will see the Conservatives punished in a host of coastal constituencies.

Yet again fishing won’t stand in isolation. Those coastal constituencies that the Conservatives hold in Scotland could easily be lost if there is a failure on fishing. The fall out from this would be the potential break up of Great Britain and the Union with it – a high price to pay for any deal the EU may offer.

The wider political stakes are even higher on fishing than when we joined –Boris Johnsons destiny rides on if he wants to be a hero or a Heath.