European countries that fish in British waters are pushing for a tougher stance to protect their fishing crews before trade talks with the UK.
Western coastal states made the call at a meeting of European Union ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday evening, the first high-level diplomatic talks on chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s draft negotiating mandate since its publication on Monday.
EU sources said western coastal states with a strong fishing interest wanted Barnier’s text to be clearer that the EU would seek to maintain the same access to British waters, and the same quota shares for 100 fish that swim in shared seas.
Boris Johnson has vowed to “take back control” of British waters, saying the UK would be an “independent coastal state” conducting annual negotiations with the EU as Norway does. On Wednesday it emerged that the UK has been quietly increasing its maritime defences in a bid to avoid a rerun of the 1970s “cod wars”.
But the EU wants to maintain the status quo that grants its member states 35% of the quantity of fish from British waters, with the richest harvest for France, the Netherlands and Denmark. France and Denmark, along with Belgium and Portugal, said the text on fisheries needed to be stronger, before ministers approve Barnier’s mandate at the end of the month. A revised text is expected by the end of the week.
David McAllister, a German Christian Democrat MEP, who is leading the European parliament on EU-UK talks, said the issue of access to waters was “inseparable” from overall deal, as well as access to European fisheries markets. Two-thirds of fish caught by British boats are exported to the EU.
“The issue of free access to waters is inseparable from the issue of free trade and access of UK fisheries products to the EU market,” the MEP told journalists last week. “So the negotiations of the UK on fisheries cannot be disconnected and will have a direct link with the negotiations on trade in goods. It’s that simple. If the UK grants us access to territorial waters, to fish, then on the other hand the UK will have access to export fisheries to the single market.”
At the Brussels meeting, Germany and the Netherlands said Barnier should be ambitious on post-Brexit police cooperation with the UK.
As a non-EU country outside the EU’s border-free travel zone, the UK will be switched off from the Schengen information system when the transition period ends in 2020. Germany and the Netherlands said the EU needed to look at alternatives to sharing information, other than the SIS database, which has 64m entries of information on criminal suspects, identity documents and missing people and is used by British police every day.
Diplomats were said to be very happy with Barnier’s text, which sums up the EU’s long-established positions - including the exclusion of Gibraltar from any EU-UK trade deal. Diplomatic sources say the document is more likely to become tougher, rather than weaker under the scrutiny of member states, before its adoption on 25 February.
The meeting took place as MEPs on the newly-created “UK coordination group” met Barnier for the first time to give the European parliament’s input on the unprecedented negotiation with an ex-member state.
Several MEPs told Barnier they were concerned about Boris Johnson’s statements about the Irish protocol, an integral part of the withdrawal agreement he signed last October. The prime minister has repeatedly said there will be no checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, although the agreement makes clear there will be checks.
McAllister told journalists he was hopeful a deal could be struck by the end of the year. “The 31 December is a new cliff-edge we are all heading for but we got it done in the first round [ of divorce talks], why don’t we get it done in the second phase.”