It’s time to talk Brexit again. Sorry, but we have to.
During the next six weeks, the UK and the EU will be locked in talks to shape the deal and how we move from “in” to “out” on March 29 next year.
Not that much will happen then. Both agree that there should be a transition period of up to two years. Indeed, there are claims that the UK wants even longer. Maybe three years.
The reason for a transition, or implementation period, is to allow business and government to adjust, establish new ways of working and set up new machinery and structures and rules.
This is essentially designed to make things easier and less stressful. All of which makes sense. Mostly. But not entirely.
And there’s a new row over where it all leads. About whether, when the dust has settled on our brave new world outside the EU, anything will be any different. Whether anything should be different.
There’s a new acronym around: BRINO. Brexit in name only. It has been coined by those who fear that when we leave, nothing will really change. For Brexit fundamentalists, this would be a betrayal. Brexit means Brexit, they say. What’s the point of leaving and having nothing to show for it? Ardent Remainers would rather we weren’t leaving at all. They want another referendum. There are numerous shades of grey in between. 50 shades of Brexit you might say.
And that is where most of us sit.
I’m certain most people just want their governments to get it done, so we can all move on. I’m sure most want the best of both worlds: a good deal with the remaining EU and the ability to be rid of the bits of EU rule we don’t like. I have no doubt that even those who voted Remain would want us to make the most of Brexit. They want some tangible sign that it has all been worth it.
BRINO doesn’t deliver that. All the hassle and angst and bargaining and debate and uncertainty would have been for nothing. Because few, if any, fans of the EU would argue that it is perfect.
Many see Brexit as the chance to right some EU wrongs. To have our European cake and eat it. If we can.
So what if there was something which gave us a tangible Brexit bonus? A visible sign that we had left. An issue which Leave and Remain both agreed would be good for Britain. Something which didn’t need two or three years to sort out.
Which already had in place all the processes, practices and structures required. Something that could be used to build a new relationship with the EU and right a historic wrong.
A totemic issue which affected thousands of jobs around the UK and especially here in Scotland. Well there is. Fishing.
When we leave the EU, we leave the Common Fisheries Policy. A disastrous diktat which has meant we are allowed to catch only 40% of the fish in our seas. The others get the rest.
The CFP gives equal weight to the opinion of land-locked EU members as it does to us. It’s like your neighbours deciding who can come to your back garden. And that they get most of the vegetables you’ve grown. For free.
Under the CFP, we are told what we can catch. In our seas. The richest in the EU. Last month, a YouGov poll asked people when should we take back control? By a sizeable majority, they said straight away on Brexit or soon thereafter. They rejected waiting two years or more.
Significantly, that majority view was across the UK and backed by Leave and Remain. An issue which unites Britain. They knew that there was a Sea of Opportunity there to be grabbed. And they know we don’t have to wait.
When it comes to fishing, the procedures are all in place. We just have to take our seat at the international table as a Coastal State. Instead of being told what we can catch, we can get first call on quota.
So when the annual Fisheries talks take place in December 2019, we can decide who catches what and when in our seas. And we can be reasonable and mature but we can be in control. And be seen to be in control.
Indeed, not getting on with it is a dangerous road to travel. Dither and delay over reclaiming control over our seas would be practically and legally more complex. We would have to give away that which we had just won back. It would create more problems than it solved. It would create more work than it would save. It would only delay, without good cause, the inevitable.
It would stoke mistrust and leave us at the mercy of others who could exploit us at EU Fisheries talks. We would have gone from having a say in what the EU gave us to sitting in a broom cupboard crossing our fingers. It would set us back and make progress harder down the line.
All we could expect in any transition period when it came to quotas would be two fish fingers waved in our direction.
Politically, having just a few months fishing “Bridge” can unite the warring factions. Brexiteers can show a tangible win. Remainers can back a no-brainer. Both should listen to public opinion. The sooner we act as a real coastal country again, the sooner we can start to right that fishing wrong. Calmly, maturely, incrementally.
From coercion to co-operation.
Because however long the Implementation Period is, we have a choice. During it, who decides on fish quotas? The EU which doesn’t own the seas, or the UK which does?
Who speaks for us? Land-locked Luxembourg or the UK and Scottish Governments?
So there are overwhelming reasons why fishing can emerge from the dark days of the CFP into a new dawn of opportunity.
We can and must get on with it. We need to end this year with the right deal on fishing to see us through Brexit year. And we can then take our place once more as a Coastal State. In charge one of our greatest natural bounties.
Delay in reclaiming that which is ours would be a political mistake. It would be a practical nonsense, creating more work than it solved. The ball is in the politicians’ court. The EU will try to hang on to unfettered access to our fish for as long as possible. But fishing is a unique case. The rest of business might want years to sort things out. For them, time is needed for a smooth transition.
Not for fishing. Our fishing communities don’t need it. And they don’t want it. It does not make sense. It’s time to get out of the CFP. Not back in by the back door for a few years more.