What’s Brexit to Do with the Price of Fish?

A fisherman aboard his trawler

Ian Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A fisherman aboard his trawler, Albion, in dock, Fleetwood, England, October 20, 2020

There was a sardonic justice in the final twist that concluded the long and tangled story of Brexit, equal parts tragedy and farce. After more than four years of campaigning, voting, debating, and negotiating over Britain’s departure from the European Union—a period that had seen governments rise and fall, political fortunes made and bust—the elusive trade agreement with the European Union was nearly derailed by an eleventh-hour dispute over fishing.

The matter in play was Britain’s insistence on reasserting control over catches in its territorial waters. UK membership in the EU had meant subscribing to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which has set agreed quotas for each member-state’s fishing fleet in EU sea areas for nearly five decades. The European Union wanted to ensure continued access and quota arrangements for members to fish in British coastal waters; the UK was determined to end or, at the least, sharply reduce those rights.

That this minnow of an issue might have been the one that led Britain to crash out of the EU with no trade agreement, the specter of a “Hard Brexit” that has haunted the negotiations all along, seemed utterly baffling. The actual size of the UK fishing industry is barely one tenth of one percentage point of GDP, supporting some 12,000 jobs on trawlers, mainly on England’s and Scotland’s East Coasts. By comparison, the UK’s financial services industry is worth more than 300 times the fishing trade. Even more perplexing, as the dispute dragged on, was the fact that the UK exports as much as 90 percent of many types of catch to Europe: if there was no agreement, then those exports would be subject to tariffs—which looked like a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

How on earth did such a humdrum commodity and unglamorous foodstuff come so close to deciding the fate of nations? How was everything else—even the location of Britain’s border with Ireland—negotiable, yet Britannia stood unmoved, apparently unmovable, over its fishing rights? The answer to those questions is: symbolic sovereignty.

First, those fishing jobs mattered politically. These were areas that voted heavily for Brexit, parts of the country that had a legitimate claim to having been “left behind” by deindustrialization and globalization, for which the European Union and its rules were the most ready scapegoat. Much as Donald Trump promised in 2016 to bring back mining jobs in Rust Belt America, Boris Johnson pledged to restore British control over fishing grounds. In both places, populist patriotism played well.

Although fish was once much more a staple of the British diet than it is today, the idea of Britain’s fishing industry still occupies a special place in the national consciousness. It dovetails tightly with the notion of Britons being an “island race”—not a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon had it, but a proud seafaring people with a navy that rules the waves. This legend runs from the defeat of the Spanish Armada, through the Battle of Trafalgar, to the heroic small boats of Dunkirk, and, even in living memory, to the naval expedition to recapture the Falkland Islands.

This idea of a “buccaneering Britain” became the mantra adopted by Boris Johnson and his pro-Leave colleagues in the Tory party. It is a fantastical chimera, of course: the Sir Francis Drake approach to international business operations—politely called privateering; in practice, piracy and plunder—ended with the effective nationalization of the East India Company back in the Victorian era. Yet the myth of plucky seafaring entrepreneurialism persists.

On the BBC, the sea areas around the British Isles are turned into automatic poetry every night by the Shipping Forecast (“Dogger, Fisher, German Bight…”), inspiring unlikely allusions in popular culture from the Mekons to Radiohead, and even making an appearance at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, accompanied by strains of Elgar. In reality, the map of those territorial waters is determined by competing national claims—and wherever the 200-nautical mile limit clashes with another country’s, the distance is equally divided. Thus, the English Channel (sic) is shared, down the middle, with France.

This did not prevent the Johnson government from dispatching earlier this month Navy patrol ships to the Channel to prepare to repel marauding French fishing boats in the event of a “no deal” Brexit. For those old enough to recall the Cod Wars, it was an eerie reminder of that era of “gunboat diplomacy.”

Starting in the late 1950s and running until the mid-1970s, Iceland (by then fully independent from Denmark) asserted increasing control of its territorial waters. Each time it extended its jurisdiction—progressively, from twelve, to fifty, to 200 nautical miles—it caused clashes with British trawlers that had been accustomed to fishing in the once cod-rich waters of the Northeast Atlantic. In one notable incident, an Icelandic Coast Guard vessel fired upon and boarded the pride of the British fleet, a boat named—ironically enough, considering its ignominious capture—for C.S. Forester, the author of the best-selling Horatio Hornblower series of naval yarns set in the Napoleonic period.


That was the gunboat bit, but Iceland bested Britain in diplomacy, too. In each of the three wars, it always had a trump card to play: its vital strategic location in the cold war. Reykjavik had only to threaten to pull out of NATO and the UK faced enormous international pressure to bow to its demands. So much for Britannia ruling the waves.

These debacles did contribute to a devastating contraction in Britain’s fishing industry: thousands lost their jobs, and a government compensation scheme came insultingly too late and too little. In truth, though, cod stocks in the Northeast Atlantic were already heading for collapse—from the 1980s, fish’n’chip shops in the UK were forced to explore other culinary items such as battered sausages and Mars bars for their deep-friers.

Fisheries have always been a vexed area of European policy-making, but the CFP has helped to manage stocks on a somewhat more sustainable basis—though only partially, since each member-state involved has its own national industry’s interest in over-exploitation. Nevertheless, as the clock ran out on the December 31 deadline, the EU’s Brexit negotiators must have found the UK’s maximalist demands beyond exasperating.

You might think that Britain would have learned a useful lesson from the Cod Wars: in order to assert sovereignty, you must have overwhelming geopolitical leverage. But the Brexit project has been beset from start to finish by utterly magical thinking over its sovereigntist urges. In the Brexiteer imagination, the tradition of Britain’s seaborne empire weighs on the brains of the living as a fever dream of Britain’s maritime might and prosperity restored. (The United States might do well to take note of the morbid symptoms produced by a failure to come to terms with imperial decline. But it may be too late for that.)

In the event, as an agreement was finally concluded on Christmas Eve, Britain has succeeded in “taking back control” of fully one quarter of EU member-states’ catch over a period of five years. That amounts to 4.5 percent of EU quotas each year, and leaves three quarters of European access to fish in UK waters intact in perpetuity. That’s showing them some buccaneering!

So it ends, Brexit begins…and any deal is preferable to none. Or as they say in Old Blighty, better than a slap in the face with a wet fish.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in