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Brexit fishing: Fergus Ewing fears ‘last-minute shady deal’

Brexit fishing

An SNP minister says Westminster is already beginning to behave like Brussels when it comes to its handling of the Scottish fishing industry.

Fergus Ewing said there are “early signs” that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was “taking on the mantle” of the European Commission.

The rural economy secretary made the comparison as he warned of the “real risk” that the Scottish fishing fleet could suffer as a result of a “last-minute shady deal” in the next few weeks.

He told the Scottish Parliament’s rural economy committee on Wednesday that there could be “very damaging” consequences because Scottish officials have not been involved in the negotiations.

Fishing boats in Stranraer Harbour.

‘A very foolish approach’

Fishing rules are reported to be one of the last remaining disputes preventing a Brexit deal between the UK and EU, with the transition period due to end on January 1.

With talks continuing, Mr Ewing fears that Scottish interests could be overlooked because Holyrood officials have been denied a seat at the negotiating table.

“The real risk now, in the next couple of weeks, is that some last-minute shady deal is done by Mr Frost, or whoever it is on the UK side, without reference to Scotland, and it has unforeseen, unintended adverse consequences for Scotland,” he said.

“This is just a very foolish approach because, frankly, the Scottish officials have the knowledge about Scottish fishing interests.

“I’m afraid the UK officials just don’t have the same degree of knowledge, probably because it is not their direct responsibility and therefore they are not so familiar with the highly complex issues involved, and this is unfortunate and potentially very damaging.”

David Frost, left, and Michel Barnier, chief Brexit negotiators for the UK and EU, respectively.

The Inverness and Nairn MSP even compared the conduct of the UK Government to the European Commission.

“The Fisheries Bill produces a framework and the framework in itself, it’s not perfect but it’s workable,” he said.

“That’s not really the issue. The issue is that I think that the early signs are that the UK Government, in the discussions that are taking place, in the work that is being done to work out a bilateral deal, the Defra seem to be taking on the mantle of being, if you like, the new Commission.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing.

“Instead of a partnership of equals, and bearing in mind of course Scots fisheries are much more valuable than the English fishery, far bigger than the English fishery, but despite that the early signs are that the UK Government seems to regard itself as the boss, the Commission, if you like.

“This is seriously worrying for me.”

Speaking afterwards, committee member and north-east region MSP Peter Chapman said: “Rather than co-operating and getting the best results for Scotland’s fishermen, the SNP have been trying to undermine Britain’s position at the negotiating table with the European Union.

“It is incredible that Mr Ewing seems to be criticising the Commission, considering the Nationalists want to cast the industry back into the Common Fisheries Policy.

“Negotiators have Scotland’s fishing interests at heart, including Europe’s largest fishing port.

“The SNP would sell fishermen out in a heartbeat if it helped them pursue their agenda of grievance.”

‘Simply untrue’

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The claims on engagement are simply untrue. The UK Government is working closely with the devolved administrations on various issues including preparations for the end of the UK Transition Period.

“Ministers from the Scottish Government are now invited to regular meetings of the Exit Operations (XO) Cabinet Committee, which they attend regularly. This is in addition to various further official and ministerial engagements, including the six Joint Ministerial Council meetings on EU negotiations this year.

“The UK Shared Prosperity Fund will bind together the whole of the UK while tackling inequality and deprivation across all four nations – and we have set out further detail on this at the spending review.

“We will continue to work closely with the devolved administration in Scotland and other interested parties across the UK as we develop the fund”