The future of the Irish fishing fleets access to UK waters depends on the outcome of EU/UK Trade negotiations which begin tomorrow

As EU/UK trade negotiations are set to begin tomorrow (Monday, 2 February), could the EU’s decision to attach fisheries to trade cost the Irish fishing industry a very high price?

Attaching access to UK fishing grounds to trade could mean that any breakdown in trade negotiations could see any deal over fisheries being wiped-off the board.


Speaking last week at a meeting in Brussels of the EU General Affairs Council – made up mainly of European Affairs ministers, Michel Barnier warned that the EU will not conclude a trade deal with the UK “at any price”, as ministers signed off on the bloc’s negotiating stance in upcoming talks.

Addressing the crowd from the remaining 27 Member States, he reiterated the demand of a “level playing field” in order for talks to progress and for the EU/UK relationship to remain harmonious.

The “level playing field” would mean the UK remaining aligned to EU regulations in food standards and labour law that would ensure the smooth transit, especially of fresh foods, between the two blocs.

The alignment would also smooth the issue of the border in Northern Ireland, although NI, we were told, was set to keep EU regulations. This now remains to be seen as the outcome of the trade negotiations are as unclear as ever.

This is because, on the other side of the English Channel, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is promising the British public that there will be no alignment with EU regulations.

This has put a stick in the spokes even before negotiations have started proper but it should not have been unexpected. Even though there was thought to be an ‘understanding’ in place it was clear that the UK Government would not capitulate to EU rules and regulations because what was the point in Brexit, if you were left on the outside looking in and having no say in what was happening to you.

A majority of people are confident a trade deal will be thrashed out in one for or the other. Both sides believe there is simply too much at risk not to come to some agreement. The UK needs to keep access to trade and financial services with the EU. Europe is the closest market for fish and other fresh food products. 

Equally, the EU needs trade with one of the most powerful economies in the world that is sitting on their doorstep. They need London’s financial businesses doing trade in the EU and they need fresh foods products from the UK. But for all this to flow freely, there needs to be a harmonisation of the rules and regulations, which the EU will not change to suit the UK as the UK is already aligned with them already.

 As the storm clouds gather over Killybegs, Ireland’s fishing fleet will lose access to valuable fishing grounds.


The EU wants continued uninterrupted access to UK waters. UK fishermen do not want the open access that the Common Fisheries Policy gave the EU fleet.

They want to preserve, consolidate and create a sustainable fisheries for the future of their own fleet and see their neighbours as plundering their fish stocks.

Most UK fishermen are realistic though. They have come to terms with the fact that EU fishing boats will have access to UK waters for reciprocal access to EU controlled grounds they need to fish.

The form of access will probably look like the permit system currently being used in the Bailiwick Waters around Guernsey Island in the English Channel. On the 1st of February, French boats fishing around Guernsey were notified that they would be required to apply to the island’s government for a permit to continue fishing in their waters. 

Of course, the French objected to this claiming traditional fishing rights but nevertheless, the permit system is now in place until the end of 2020.

The permit system could allow EU fishing vessels to fish inside the UK’s 200 mile limit up to their 12 mile limit, with access inside that reserved exclusively for UK registered boats. 

What happens if EU and UK negotiators fail to find common ground to base a realistic trade deal on?

A no-deal trade deal would have serious effects on the Irish fishing industry if Barnier and Boris get into playing a game of hardball on the issue.

Fisheries in the North-West of Ireland rely heavily on access to the west coast of Scotland as a traditional ground for crab fishing. Pelagic boats in Killybegs rely on

Kilmore Quay

Kilmore Quay boats fish in the Celtic Sea

access to the Shetland grounds for winter mackerel and whitefish boats rely on access to the Rockall grounds for haddock and other species. Fishing boats on the east coast of Ireland will see the fishing grounds reduce by nearly two thirds as a line is drawn down the Irish Sea and in the South-East, boats will loose access to valuable grounds in the Celtic Sea.

Many in the UK believe the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier is saying “there won’t be any agreement at all” without a deal on fisheries access, and this has been supported by the European Fisheries Alliance (EFA).

At the end of January, European Fisheries Alliance (EUFA) Chairman Gerard van Balsfoort stated that: “Brexit is undoubtedly an uncertain moment for European Fishermen, their businesses and their communities. It is now time to look ahead, acknowledge our mutual interdependence and end this uncertainty.  We need to build a new, long-term common framework for sustainable fisheries management. One that preserves the existing distribution of fishing opportunities and upholds mutual access to waters and markets.

Upholding ‘mutual access to waters and markets’ depends on the trade deal. Twenty-two Member States are depending on the outcome of the negotiations in regards to fisheries access to UK waters. Amongst other Member States heavily dependent on access are the Netherlands and Belgium who claim traditional fishing rights inside the UK zone.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) has said: “Conceding to these demands would eviscerate the UK’s legal status as an independent coastal state and would commit the UK to remaining in an asymmetrical and exploitative relationship with the EU on fisheries. The UK could only accept these provisions by breaking the promises that have been made repeatedly by the Prime Minister and Cabinet level ministers, commitments on fishing made during the EU referendum. It would amount to a betrayal on a scale equivalent to the UK’s sell-out on fishing in 1973.”

On the issue of trade the NFFO continued: “The EU has made plain that a free trade deal would be contingent on UK concessions on fishing rights. There is no international precedent for including free access to exploit another country’s natural resources as part of a trade deal. A trade deal is important for both the UK and the EU. Some EU member states will be extremely vulnerable if the UK is forced to trade on WTO terms.”


 Howth on the Irish Sea will see it’s fleet lose access to around two-thirds of the Irish Sea

The negotiating mandate published on Thursday last at Westminster is a long way from the vision for a future relationship for managing wild fish stocks in the European Commission’s proposals.

The UK government’s negotiating stance on Fisheries is “Any agreement must reflect the fact that the UK is to become an independent coastal state. The UK wishes to open up annual negotiations on fishing quotas and access and would not accept the ‘relative stability’ mechanism under the Common Fisheries Policy. It would favour a zonal attachment, which is the basis for Norway’s fisheries agreement.

“Any EU vessel granted access to UK waters would have to abide by UK rules. The UK will work with the EU to ensure fishing sustainability.

“Both parties should share vessel monitoring data.”

The EU’s stance on the negotiations is “The UK and EU should uphold existing reciprocal access, stable quota shares (which can only be adjusted with the consent of both parties) and set either annual or multi-annual total allowable catches.

“Partnership should reflect ‘continued responsible fisheries’ in line with principles of EU law, in particular those underpinning the Common Fisheries Policy.

“Access to waters and quota shares will affect other aspects of the economic relationship, in particular the extent to which the UK and EU can agree tariff-free and quota-free trade in goods.”

What does this mean?

Howth harbour

Howth on the Irish Sea will see it’s fleet lose access to around two-thirds of the Irish Sea


The Institute for Government in the UK believes “There is a clear gulf between the UK’s and the EU’s positions. The EU wants to manage fisheries in the same way as now; the UK wants annual negotiations on access to waters.

“The EU has also reiterated a desire to agree provisions on fisheries by 1 July 2020. The UK government ignores this.

“The EU sees an agreement on fishing rights as a fundamental part of the economic relationship.

“The UK has underlined that its preferred option is in line with EU precedent for other coastal states.”

If the UK succeeded in their ultimatum, it would mean fishing boats from the EU fleet that would be licensed to fish in UK waters would have to comply with UK rules and regulations. This is a rejection of the “relative stability” mantra of the Common Fisheries Policy which the EU would like to enforce.

Conclusion: Who wins? Anybody’s guess.

With the divide between the UK and the EU in regards to trade and fisheries so distinct, heading into tomorrow’s negotiations it would be too simple to say that both blocs are on a collision course. 

Negotiators have a habit of finding compromise or when compromise is not on the table they find a way of forcing their deal through. It will be down to who has the strongest arm.

The UK needs access to the EU markets and the EU needs the UK to be trading with them.

Could the fear of UK fishermen come through? Could their fishing waters be traded in exchange for the access to lucrative financial markets in the EU?

Could there be an impasse? Only for the EU to capitulate on the access question and agreeing to the UK demands?

The battle lines have been drawn ahead of tomorrow’s negotiations. Who will toe-the-line and who will throw in the towel when the bout begins?

Future of Fisheries unclear ahead of tomorrow’s Trade negotiations

by editor time to read: 13 min