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Fish fury flares over Brussels Brexit deal

Photo: PA

Fish fury flared today. And indeed yesterday. In both Holyrood and Westminster.

Tory MPs and MSPs fury is focused on their UK ministerial colleagues who agreed yesterday that the fisheries policy will continue to be governed by Brussels after Britain formally leaves the EU in March 2019.

They, and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF), had given assurances that the UK would immediately gain control of fishing policy from the day Britain formally quits the Union.

SNP MPs and ministers fury is focused on the Tories for promising immediate sovereignty over the seas - and their bounty - when, the Nationalists say, they must have known that would not be the case.

Instead the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) will apply for the transition period up to December 2020 as part of the deal that Brexit Secretary David Davis negotiated with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

So fish fury all round, as there has been in the past. And as an aside, that alliteration was, sadly, not mine that of a former political correspondent of the Daily Record, John Deans, and applied to the 'cod wars' with Iceland.

The question, though, is why is there so much fury around, and whether the flurry of fury is justified.

In 2016, fishing and fish processing industries accounted for 0.12% of the all UK economic output, a House of Commons briefing document says.

Over half of the GB fishing industry was based in Scotland in 2016 (53% of the total). There were 4,500 fishing/aquaculture employees and 8,000 fish processing employees in Scotland, the briefing adds.

In Scotland the fish 'catching sector' accounts for 0.17% of GVA (Gross Value Added), a measure similar to GDP. Processing, catching and aquaculture, the seafood sector in general, accounts for 0.6% GVA, according the Scottish government figures.

Now, in places like Eyemouth fishing, though not what it was, is still important. It is still significant in the North-east of Scotland, in terms of 'industrial' fishing, and in the West in terms of harvesting shellfish.

However, in the context of the Scottish economy fishing, and related activities, are relatively small. So why the fuss?

My view is that it's partly because fishing has a grip on the Scottish psyche. We're still gripped by the bravery of those who fish, fuelled by perhaps the rather over-romantic sentiment of songs like 'Shoals of Herring'.

The rows today, and yesterday, may be based on the 'Shoals of Herring' perception of fishing as a totemic Scottish industry but it also has a lot to do with brutal party politics.

The Scottish Tories made promises that they would push for the UK to 'take back control', to coin a phrase, of fishing on the day the country left the EU.

They have not been able to deliver on that and this has resulted in backbench MPs like John Lamont expressing publicly their frustration with their own government.

Mr Lamont has even threatened to vote down the final Brexit deal if it does not guarantee sovereignty over the seas and freedom from the CFP, which most fishermen dislike. Make that hate.

This has allowed the SNP to say the Tories have 'betrayed' fishing communities including many areas which turned away from the Nationalists to the Conservatives at the last UK election.

And the SNP say the Tory stance fits with a pattern of 'betrayal' going back to when the fishing industry was 'sacrificed' by the Conservative government when the UK joined what was then the Common Market.

In response, the Tories say the SNP are being hypocritical as their party policy is for an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU and, with it, the CFP.

The SNP say that they are opposed to the CFP, and would not sign up to it, but experts on Europe I have asked say that a country joining the EU (re-joining in Nationalist eyes) could not cherry-pick conditions.

It would be EU membership, warts, CFP and all, and the SNP are, in Tory eyes, therefore playing politics with this issue and not being straight with the communities they claim to care about.

There was an echo of this view in the reaction to the announcement yesterday by the Scottish Fishermen's Federation which said it was disappointed with both the UK and Scottish government.

The SFF specifically mentioned the SNP policy of joining (rejoining) the EU and the requirement to be part of the CFP, to which they are implacably opposed.

So plenty of fury over whether Scotland can benefit from a plentiful supply of fish once we leave the EU.

What will matter for fishing communities will be what the final deal - after the transition period - means for them. Whether their industry thrives or declines further. That, many would say, should be the acid test.

Meanwhile, we can expect more fish fury to flare in the days ahead.

As an addition to this, what is the expert view on these issues?

I asked Dr Kirsty Hughes of the Scottish Centre on European relations for her view on, first, the controversy over the transition period and the effect on fishing. She told me:

There was never any chance that there would be a special deal for fisheries during the transition. The EU have been clear for several months that there was no time to negotiate anything other than a 'status quo' transition where all EU laws and rules applied. So it was misleading to ever suggest the contrary.

Outside the EU, the UK will want to negotiate access to EU waters, it will want tariff-free trade on fisheries and other sectors. And the EU will want a deal on fisheries access.

Any good trade deal between the EU-UK will need a deal of some sort on fisheries - that will be one the UK chose to enter into, so is that what Ruth Davidson means by full control, choosing to agree a deal, or does she mean some unilateral position on fisheries which would prioritise fish over all other sectors?"

– Dr Kirsty Hughes, Scottish Centre of European relations

I then asked about the SNP's position on the CFP, and this is her verdict:

If the Scottish government's least worst Brexit deal is for the UK to be in the EU's single market and customs union, do they want the customs union to exclude fisheries?

The EU is unlikely to agree to that and outside the customs union there would be tariffs on UK fish exports.

And as an independent country in the EU, Scotland would have to be part of all the EU's policies, certainly no cherry-picking or opt-outs on common fisheries policy."

– Dr Kirsty Hughes, Scottish Centre of European relations