• The London Financial

An Island Nation: Symbols of nationalism and identity politics in the Brexit Fishing negotiations

By Frances Smethurst, BSc Politics and International Relations at University of Bristol

The 23rd June 2016 marked a ‘Critical Juncture’ in British politics with the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union by a 52-48% margin. Despite the negotiations of the past four years, it appears that a Brexit deal rests on one seemingly innocuous issue: fishing rights.

Economically, the fishing industry accounts for only 0.1% of British GDP, yet is central to the increasingly high-stakes and time-sensitive Brexit negotiations (Morris, 2020). The Brexit debate has enmeshed a trading issue within specific nostalgic rhetoric, appealing for a return to ‘traditional British values and a traditional British society’ (Lis, 2020). This prioritisation of nationalistic rhetoric over economic wellbeing has made the issue of post-Brexit fishing rights unduly contentious and thus has hindered the negotiations.

The UK-EU fishing relationship has been complicated since the UK joined the EU. Although it was created to strengthen the European fishing industry by protecting fishermen and preventing overfishing, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) allows access to any member’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (a nation’s waters as defined by UN convention). Thus, the CFP is the central conflict in UK-EU fishing relations.

The pooling of EU member states' EEZ's inevitably led to murmurs of inequality and injustice. Approximately 60% of all catch in UK waters is by EU27 states with Denmark alone fishing 237,000 tonnes and France’s catch worth over £171 million in 2017. In comparison, the UK only fished 94,000 tonnes from the pooled EU27 waters — a clear disparity in access and usage (Pilkington and Wardlaw, 2018).

This perhaps explains why an estimated 92% of fishermen voted to leave the EU (McAngus, 2017) and their resentment over only having access to 1/28th of their sovereign waters is understandable. However, it does not explain the delay in reaching an agreement which is critical as 73% of the UK catch is exported to mainland Europe (Uberoi, 2020). If one simply examines this conflict from an economic standpoint, then a solution would not be inconceivable.

Although the Brexit scenario is unique, there is precedent for non-member states entering a maritime trading relationship with the EU. Norway has an agreement with the EU which requires strict quotas to prevent overfishing and specific, reciprocal access to each other’s EEZ without threatening sovereignty (European Commission, 2019). Similarly, the UK and Norway have since Brexit entered into an agreement, which maintains their respective EEZ’s but allows certain joint fishing rights and export opportunities (DEFRA, 2020). The issue in implementing a similar deal between the UK and the EU would of course be difficult, with the British fishermen who claim that the CFP destroyed their livelihoods unwilling to accept a similar EEZ deal and the EU understandably seeking to ensure their interests in UK waters are protected. However, the presence of the UK-Norway deal and especially the Norway-EU deal indicates that an agreement should be feasible – that the negotiations have stalled suggests that a deeper cause may be at play. This is solidified by Johnson’s rejection of a recent (November 2020) EU proposal for £90 million in return for joint fishing rights, stating that it was too low. Besides, he is under intense pressure from within his party to reject any proposal and thus his decision could be purely political. Patrick Nichols MP stated that if one looked at the offer economically, then it would be a good deal but the EU-UK fisheries deal “was not about money,” emphasising that this issue is defined by a rhetoric other than economic trade (Bet, 2020).

The Brexit debate has consistently engaged in a specific nostalgic sentiment; a desire to return to a Britain of the past in which life is perceived to have been simpler, better and notably centred around a belief in Anglo-exceptionalism. This narrative dominated the Brexit campaign and has continued to underpin subsequent negotiations. This discourse focussed on recent decline in Britain — a fault laid at Europe’s door with a desire to reinstate the UK’s place as a major world power. It is commonly accepted that Britain was a great power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with its status cemented by unrivalled industrial strength and the world’s largest empire, which in 1914 encompassed a quarter of the world’s population (Mearsheimer, 2001: 40). By examining these two facets of industry and empire, one can see the relevance of the fishing industry to this nostalgic narrative.

The Brexit vote has been linked to the decline of British manufacturing and it is undeniable that the UK is no longer an industrial or technological superpower (Pettifor, 2017). There is an impression that manufacturing – one of the traditional sources of the British sense of exceptionalism – is fragile and fickle and thus there is a desire to return to traditional industries; ones that cannot ‘fail’ or be ‘poached’ by cheaper or more lucrative foreign markets. Fishing is one of the UK’s oldest industries and though much has changed, its basic principles have remained the same for centuries. As such, it is a clear target for arguments which seek to return to a landscape before heavy industry, replacing its fragility with something solid and dependable.

However, the fact that this discourse has surrounded fishing more than any of the other ‘traditional’ industries specifically is due to Empire and what Rosaldo terms “nostalgic imperialism” (Rosaldo, 1989). Many, including Krishan Kumar, identify the British Empire as a cornerstone of British (and especially English) national identity with a YouGov poll showing 59% of those surveyed believed that the Empire was a source of pride (Dahlgreen, 2014; Kumar, 2000). Coastal industries were central to the formation and maintenance of not only the empire through the Royal Navy, but also of the nation’s identity clearly demarcating the country’s borders and sovereignty. Thus, it seems clear that at a time when British national identity is seen to be under threat, there is a resurgence of nationalistic sentiment around fishing — the surviving remnant of the UK’s strong maritime past.

If one marries the desire to return to a Britain before industrial decline to a ‘yearning’ for the status of the UK’s imperial past, then the employment of this nostalgic and nationalistic rhetoric to the fishing dispute makes sense. The UK fishing industry has been ‘hijacked’ to further political agendas and to allow for the continued dissemination of a rhetoric which is not only popular but also most importantly vote winning.

The UK fishing industry has been conflated with questions of national identity and worth; with these subjugating the more pressing and rational trade negotiations. It appears that as the end of the negotiation period comes closer this issue gains more importance, but it seems likely that it will remain unresolved, leaving the potential for a Brexit deal in tatters. This nostalgic rhetoric and centring of national identity on a lost sense of greatness defined the Brexit campaign; seemingly, it will also define its aftermath.


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