UK drops bid for instant return of fisheries control – sources

Plans to take back control of UK fisheries the moment Britain leaves the EU appear to have been abandoned in the face of united EU opposition, dealing a significant blow to the ambitions of the environment secretary, Michael Gove.

Gove put repatriating control of fisheries at the heart of his post-Brexit strategy. But as the negotiations to secure the terms of a transition deal go to the wire in Brussels, the UK has backed down.

However, sources say there have been concessions on both sides. The EU is prepared to allow the UK a say in the negotiations on setting the allowable catch for the EU fleet even after the formal departure date of 29 March 2019.

The crucial meeting of EU heads of government intended to sign off the withdrawal agreement starts on Thursday, and people familiar with the negotiations say they are still talking.

Gove, one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, made regaining the right to set quotas and manage UK fisheries one of the central commitments of the Leave pitch. Forced to accept some stability during a transition, he has demanded a shorter transition period for fishing of just nine or 10 months.

Last week he teamed up with Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, to underline their joint determination to repatriate controls immediately.

“We want the UK to become an independent coastal state, negotiating access annually with our neighbours,” they said. “During the implementation period, we will ensure that British fishermen’s interests are properly safeguarded.”

Gove raised his concerns with fellow cabinet ministers last week, ahead of a Brexit subcommittee meeting.

But the EU has made access to UK waters on existing terms throughout the transition period a red line of its own. France in particular has threatened that any attempt to curtail access would be met with limits to British access to EU markets in other sectors.

The annual fisheries council, where ministers from across the EU meet to wrangle an agreement on fishing, takes place in December each year. The UK will still be a member in December 2018, and able to influence decisions. But the following year, Britain will be out. Gove will struggle to present a role in agreeing the allowable catch as a victory when he had been demanding total control.

Although fishing is only 0.05% of UK GDP, it has huge emotional significance. The common fisheries policy has led to the laying up of most of the British fishing fleet over the past 40 years. Gove has blamed the CFP for destroying his father’s fish processing firm.

Sources close to the cabinet minister accept that the issue cannot be allowed to derail the deal on transition, which is part of the withdrawal agreement due to be signed off at the end of the week. Ministers recognise the need for certainty for business and the economy.

But accepting the EU position on fisheries appears to be another significant concession by the Brexit secretary, David Davis. He has already acknowledged that he can live with the EU’s preferred date for the end of the transition period, in December 2020, rather than running on until March 2021 as Theresa May proposed in her Florence speech last year.

The biggest and most difficult obstacle to a deal on the principles of the transition is still the question of the Irish border. A cross-party committee of MPs concluded last week that there was no technical solution in operation that could prevent the reintroduction of a hard border if there was no deal on EU trade. Yesterday, a majority report from the Brexit select committee recommended that the transition period should be extended if necessary.

The committee chair, Hilary Benn, said that based on the evidence his committee had seen, “a no deal scenario is a significant danger to the UK”.

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