Post-Brexit hygiene checks will leave British fishermen all at sea

Opinion piece (The Times)
Sam Lowe
23 April 2018

On the March 19th the UK and EU agreed, in principle, on a post-Brexit transition period. While this was welcomed by the vast majority of British business, one group felt they had been sold down the river: fishermen.

They had been promised the swift return of UK territorial waters and its piscatorial bounty, and the news that British fishermen would have to continue to adhere to EU quotas for a further 20 months was a sour pill to swallow.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations called the transition agreement a “humiliation”, while the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said it“falls far short of an acceptable deal”.

However, with hindsight, many will come to realise that the 20 extra months was necessary and indeed not even close to being long enough.

Ignoring for a second the question of whether the prospect of no longer having to share the fish in British waters with our European neighbours is a realistic proposition, if British fishermen are shut out of their biggest export market it is of little use to anyone regardless.

British people tend not to eat the fish that are hauled in by British commercial fishermen. Around 80 per cent of that catch is exported, with two-thirds of it going to the EU.

The nature of international trade means life for the UK’s fishing industry will not be as plain sailing after Brexit as some Brexiteers have led fishermen to believe.

The most likely outcome, unless the UK government changes is red lines, is that following a transition, the UK and EU will enter into a free trade agreement.

This free trade agreement will probably be slightly more ambitious than any the EU has done to date, but it will be far removed from the near-frictionless trade we see within the EU today.

People like to talk about tariff free trade, but in reality tariffs are only a small part of the issue. Under the terms of a UK-EU free trade agreement, tariffs will probably be low or non-existent – it’s the new regulatory barriers to trade that will cause the problems.

The EU’s food hygiene regime in relation to imports from outside of its territory is incredibly strict. This is particularly true when it comes to products of animal origin. All fish imported from outside of the EU has to enter via a veterinary border inspection post, where checks will be carried out.

Anywhere from a fifth up to half of fish imports are subject to physical checks. The proportion of consignments checked can be reduced if an agreement is in place between the EU and the country of origin.

It would be reasonable to assume that the UK and EU will come to such an arrangement. However, this doesn’t remove the need for the fish to enter via a certified veterinary border inspection post.

This raises a serious logistical problem: neither Calais nor the Eurotunnel – two of our main routes into Europe – have the facilities required to accept fish imports from non-EU countries. The nearest port with the required facilities is Dunkirk, but it only has the capacity for a paltry 15 inspections a day.

Until this is remedied, UK fish exports to Europe would need to be routed via other ports, for example Rotterdam. This might not be appropriate for UK exports of fishy treats that need to be moved as quickly as possible from sea to plate, for example premium fresh Scottish langoustine destined for a restaurant in Paris.

A transition theoretically allows for new investment on both sides of the channel, but it’s not enough. With the future relationship unlikely to be finalised until the eleventh hour of the transition period, more time will be required to make the necessary adjustment to customs and border facilities.

Even then there will be new checks and delays at the border to contend with. For a perishable product like fish, where freshness is a key selling point, being stuck behind a lorry that forgot its paperwork could be problematic.

The British fishing industry will adjust over time — indeed, it will have to. But fishermen shouldn’t kid themselves that Brexit will heal the wounds of days gone by.

Sam Lowe is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.