3 July 2017

Michael Gove’s announcement this Sunday that the UK would be leaving the London Fisheries Convention came as little surprise. Back in March, the Times’s Sam Coates and Ben Webster suggested that the UK was on track to do just that. A month later, the Conservative Manifesto contained a clear commitment to “withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention”.

Gove framed the announcement as “the first step in taking back control of our territorial waters”. He told Tim Shipman that this was “proof that Brexit is happening”. Expanding on his interview with the Sunday Times, Gove told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “when we leave the European Union we will become an independent coastal state, and that means that we can then extend control of our waters up to 200 miles, or the median line between Britain and France or Britain and Ireland, and that means that we then decide” the terms of access.

The EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, was not impressed. He tweeted that: “UK denunciation of London Convention” made “no change” as “EU law” and the “Common Fisheries Policy had superseded it”. Well, perhaps. The relevant international law is not entirely straightforward, and it’s open to argument as to how relevant the London Convention remains. The Convention certainly predates UK membership of the EU, and the establishment of the Common Fisheries Policy. But leaving the Convention will help limit the scope for later legal challenge. The Conservative Manifesto quite reasonably noted that withdrawal was “to provide complete legal certainty to our neighbours and clarity during our negotiations”.

Gove’s announcement was in many ways a statement of intent – an (arguably) necessary but not sufficient step to taking back control of the UK waters. But Gove was quite clear on Marr that the change would happen “when we leave the European Union”, which would of course entail leaving the Common Fisheries Policy. In the meantime, the Government hopes to have passed a Fisheries Bill to “enable the UK to ‘exercise responsibility’ for access to fisheries and management of its waters.”

Anyway, if – as Mr Barnier claims – the UK Government’s announcement changes nothing why did he feel the need to take to Twitter? The answer is that fishing is a hugely sensitive issue on the Continent. Responding to the announcement, the Flanders Fisheries Lobby noted that half of their turnover could be affected, and Dutch Media raised concerns. One of the difficulties of the UK’s determination to reform fishing regulations is that it will inevitably irritate members of the EU27, including states which would otherwise tend to be more sympathetic to our position in Brexit discussions.

Back in the UK, fishing accounts for a relatively small slice of the economy but is highly politically potent. Fishing groups inevitably welcomed Gove’s announcement but, more unusually, the move was backed by the SNP. The Scottish Government’s Fisheries Secretary, Fergus Ewing, even said it was one “we have been pressing for some time now”. Although neither Mr Ewing’s written submission of 7 September 2016 to a House of Lords, European Union Committee Report “Brexit: Fisheries”, nor the Scottish Government’s document “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, made any reference to the Convention at all, the SNP have clearly committed to leaving the Common Fisheries Policy or radically reforming it. They will have a keen eye on Scottish coastal constituencies in areas such as Aberdeenshire where fishing is important. For similar reasons, it would be highly surprising if Labour chose to oppose the move. In an event, it’s likely that the decision to withdraw will remain a Government decision under prerogative powers, rather than a matter on which Parliament will vote.

Open Europe will return to the question of fish and fisheries in coming weeks. The announcements are the easy bit. It’s what comes next and the technical details that will be harder. There’s also a reasonable chance that the UK may take back control of its waters only to grant access to certain countries for fishing – that may make perfect sense economically and in negotiating terms, but it’s unlikely to be popular with our fisherman.

More generally, this weekend’s announcement points to a general Government appetite for ‘good news’ stories (especially on things Brexit), and it also underscores that Opposition parties will be wary of being out-flanked on some – but not all – Brexit policy areas.