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What in cod’s name is Macron up to picking a fight on fishing with Britain as Brexit deal closes in?

Damian Wilson
Damian Wilson
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
What in cod’s name is Macron up to picking a fight on fishing with Britain as Brexit deal closes in?
With a long-awaited Brexit agreement looking likely, President Macron has jeopardised any agreement by saying the UK position on fishing is “unacceptable.” As history has shown, upsetting the Brits over fish is an unwise move.

A frenzied weekend of telephone diplomacy proves that a Brexit deal is alive and well – which some never doubted – although one man’s ego could prove the final undoing of this most cack-handed of negotiations.

And it’s not, as you might immediately think, British PM Boris Johnson, but his counterpart from across La Manche, President Emmanuel Macron

Like the irritatingly vain types we all know, who cannot help casting an admiring glance at their own form if they spy their reflection in a shop window, the French leader finds it impossible to resist any opportunity to seize upon a little foreign grandeur if the chance arises. And when opinion polls show 60 percent of French people disapprove of their leader, then what does he have to lose?

Understand that, and you can see where his threat to throw a spanner into the Brexit works at this week’s European Union leaders’ summit comes from. At yet another critical point of these seemingly interminable negotiations, and with both sides agreeing that a deal before the deadline is do-able, Macron has chosen to declare that the British position over fisheries is “unacceptable.”

Macron wants to keep the status quo for French fishing fleets, some of which rely on British waters for 75 percent of their catch. Instead, the UK is offering renegotiated, time-limited rights. It’s not enough for France. After all, Macron has 2,100 miles of mainland coastline to look after as well.

The French say that while failure would be an undesirable outcome, they will let Brexit talks collapse rather than make unreasonable concessions. Ouf! You can imagine Macron’s fellow EU leaders smacking their foreheads in exasperation.

That’s why BoJo was on the Berlin hotline at the weekend. Having already spoken with Macron, he needed the cooler head of Angela Merkel to rein in the French president’s rampaging ego. On Thursday, we will find out how that worked.

This is not new territory. The argument surrounding access by European nations to UK fisheries has been poisonous since day one. As the UK’s chief negotiator, the late Sir Con O’Neill, said of the 1972 talks with the then-European common market, “The question of fisheries was economic peanuts, but political dynamite.” Nothing has changed since.

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The reality is that while accounting for a fraction of the economic activity in the UK, generating just 0.12 percent of GDP and providing employment for a mere 0.1 percent of our 33-million strong national workforce, the assumed importance of British fisheries is way out of proportion.

You could understand if all the fuss was over something we actually wanted.

But most of the fish eaten in the UK is imported. All that cod in our chip shops? We import 83 percent. Haddock? 58 percent. We only catch five percent of the cod and seven percent of the haddock that we mostly coat in batter, deep fry and wrap in paper on a Friday night.

But if herring is your dish – which it is in Norway and the Netherlands – then UK fishermen will sort you out, exporting 93 percent of what they net, along with most of the mackerel and sole they land as well. Overall, the UK exports 80 percent of the fish it catches and imports 70 percent of all that it eats.

And then you have the twisted reality that we’re not even the biggest fishermen in our own waters. In the five years to 2015, a Scottish study found that more than half of the fish and shellfish landed from the UK’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone by EU boats was caught by non-UK boats.

Yet somehow, the British fisherman is mythologised as a model of independent self-sustainability, providing work and food for strongly self-reliant local communities while competing against foreign super-trawlers that threaten their livelihoods under the protection of the malevolent European Union.

But mess with the myth and you are denying the existence of a particularly British romance with the seas.

President Macron is au fait with that. It’s why he has pushed the fisheries button to make his presence known.

Boris recognises that special relationship too. It’s why he waved a smoked kipper around on stage at a Tory conference, having just assumed the premiership from Theresa May. It showed his attachment not just to that breakfast favourite, but to the fisherman myth, of brave souls in their sou’westers hauling in nets laden with British fish as waves crash on a freezing deck and horizontal rain stings their faces, risking their very lives as they fight to eke out a living from the unforgiving seas.

It is great PR imagery and when you start adding other emotive issues like sovereignty, ownership of territorial waters, declining employment in British coastal towns and an imbalanced common fisheries policy implemented by an overbearing Brussels, you can see how the heat around the issue intensifies, despite the economic truths.

And that is a huge advantage for Boris in this Brexit endgame. Mess with the fishing myth and there’s no telling where the UK may go, a stand of which most of the EU member states are aware.

Macron may be fishing for a better overall EU outcome here, but his ego and desire to make an impact have led him to make a novice’s choice of bait and tackle for an end to this epic struggle. 

For any chance of landing a better fisheries deal than what Britain is prepared to give up, then it’s not just worms and hooks required, but as Captain Quint would no doubt suggest, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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