Reply To: Elections Aftermath: Was our 2019 Vote & the EU Referendum Rigged? #TORYRIG2019

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Kim Sanders-Fisher

I was born in Hastings and spent weekends as a child playing on the historic fishing stade, the last place in the UK where sizable fishing vessels are drawn up on an open beach. I can really empathize with those fishermen, especially having spent so much time at sea myself; I know the EU has made some very serious errors of judgement with the Common Fisheries Policy that led to depleted fish stocks from overfishing and unnecessary waste. The UK Government cast fishermen adrift when we entered the EU; I doubt they will be treated as a priority now beyond the media hype. Despite posing as a ‘fisherman’s friend’ his dedication lack the strength of that namesake mint! Right before the crucial EU referendum vote the UKs most attention grabbing arch Brexiteer pulled a stunt intended to sway voters to fiercely defend the rights of our fishing fleet. In the Descier Article entitled, “Brexit: Nigel Farage only turned up to one of 42 EU fisheries committee meetings,” Berit Watkin exposed the mouthy MEPs failings.

On June 16 Watkin wrote, “Nigel Farage sailed a boat down the Thames yesterday in an attempt to highlight the plight of British fishermen, conveniently forgetting that he did nothing to protect the industry while on the EU fisheries committee. Nigel Farage has said that the UK fishing industry has been ‘gutted due to the EU’ and that the institution was out of touch with the problems facing Britons fishermen. However, according to research by Greenpeace ‘over the three years that Nigel Farage was a member of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, he attended one out of 42 meetings’. Farage claims that EU policies are a lead weight on UK industries, but if that was the case then he has made no attempt to improve the situation and ease the burden on British workers.” In reality his crusade to drag us out of the EU deal or no deal will cost thousands of jobs throughout the UK.

Watkin remarks that, “If Farage really wanted to help the fishing industry it would have been Farage that organised the “Fish Fight” campaign started by River Cottage’s Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall that gained more than 870,000 signatures and convinced the EU to reform its wasteful discard policy.” This was a terrible policy that required fishermen to ditch any fish caught over the allowable quota despite the fact that these fish were already dead; sadly this helped deplete our precious fish stock for no possible gain. This was a fine example for Watkin to pick on order to demonstrate that, “Change is perfectly possible to fix some of the issues with the EU if politicians act rather than campaign. To add insult to injury, it appears that the trawler Farage used for his publicity stunt on the Thames ‘was caught up in the UK’s largest ever fraud involving illegal catches of fish and is now partly owned by one of the richest fishing barons in the country’, according to another report from Greenpeace.”

Watkin highlights an equally disreputable and well known charlatan of Vote Leave saying that, “Another Brexit campaigner to claim to understand the problems facing British fisherman is Michael Gove, who has often repeated the claim that the introduction of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy caused hardship in his family and forced his father to sell his fishing business. However, his own father has since denied these claims in a phone interview with the Guardian. The Leave campaign seem very capable of making persuasive arguments about the faults of the European Union, but when their claims are dismissed by their own family and they do not act to solve the issue when they have the power to do so, why should the British public believe they are telling the truth about a better life post-Brexit.”

In the In Facts Article entitled, “Farage makes a fishy claim – but he’s to blame,” Jonathan Spink was equally scathing three tears on as we careened towards another crash-out cliff edge in December 2019.The Brexit Party leader claimed at the weekend that our “gutless” civil service will be to blame for illegal fishing in our waters if we crash out of the EU. He is wrong. It will actually be the hardline Brexiters such as Nigel Farage himself, who will be the culprits. The Brexit Party leader should know that if we leave the EU with no deal, we will have no agreement over many issues, including fishing. Norway and Iceland can stop illegal fishing in their waters because they have negotiated a treaty with the EU that protects their fishing interests, something the UK will lack if we crash out with no deal. In such a scenario, we will have 12 vessels to monitor a space three times the size of the UK. An internal government email seen by Sky News says: ‘We are not on an overly strong footing to get ahead of the potential claims that could arise’.”

According to Spink, “By promoting crashing out with no deal, without the treaty protection that Iceland and Norway enjoy, Farage is advocating a situation that will hurt the British fishing industry. It’s not surprising that his grasp of fishing law is so poor, seeing as he only turned up to one out of 42 meetings of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee in the three years he was a member. More than 70% of UK seafood exports go to the EU, while a third of the seafood we import comes from the EU. Both the UK fishing industry and consumers benefit from our relationship with the EU – allowing us to export fish such as mackerel that other countries like to eat and to import fish like tuna that we enjoy. By working together on conservation in our oceans, trade and protecting fishing rights, we gain so much more from remaining in the EU than leaving.” Clearly fishing is a complicated issue.

In a BBC Reality Check Article entitled, “Brexit trade deal: Who really owns UK fishing quotas?” they examine and quantify why so much of the fish caught around our coast is being landed by non-UK vessels and why this imbalance is not as clear cut as it might seem from the headlines. They say, “Fishing has been one of the key sticking points in talks over a future UK/EU trade deal. As well as access to territorial waters and markets, the issue of what to do about foreign-owned boats which fish in UK waters under a British flag, has been part of negotiations. So how are these boats able to benefit from British fish quotas, how widespread is this practice – known as ‘quota-hopping’ – and what does the government plan to do about it? Half of England’s quota in foreign hands, £160m worth of England’s fishing quota is in the hands of vessels owned by companies based in Iceland, Spain and the Netherlands, according to BBC research. That amounts to 130,000 tonnes of fish a year and 55% of the quota’s annual value in 2019.”

The BBC note that, “Quotas are used by many countries to manage shared fish stocks. They determine how many fish of each species each country’s fleets are allowed to catch. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) sets quotas among EU member states, and similar deals are negotiated with neighbouring countries.” The article pictures one such foreign vessel with the revealing caption that reads, ‘The Dutch owners of the Frank Bonefaas super-trawler own a fifth of England’s fishing quota.’ One of the priorities of the Fisheries Act, which became law on 24 November, is that ‘fishing activities of UK fishing boats bring social or economic benefits to the United Kingdom’. Current rules say even if vessels are 100% foreign-owned, they must have an ‘economic link’ to the UK. That means they must meet one of five conditions, which include landing more than half their catch at UK ports or having majority British crews.”

The BBC report that, “A consultation by the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), which closed in November, outlined plans to ‘increase the landing requirements from 50% to 70% for quota catch caught by English registered vessels landing more than 2 tonnes per annum’. The consultation stated that this change ‘could result in up to £60m worth of additional landings each year’, but it did not mention any changes to rules around ownership.” They describe how such changes could be ‘Legally tricky,’ but say, “For many in the fishing industry Defra’s proposals did not go far enough. ‘If the government allows foreign companies to continue to own more than half of England’s quota, it would be a calamity,’ said Paul Lines, from Fishing for Leave, a pro-Brexit group within the British fishing industry.”

The BBC say that, “Fishing for Leave wants to change the rules so all British fishing vessels must be ‘60% British-owned; 60% British-crewed; (and must) land, process and sell 60% of their catches in Britain’. ‘I would be absolutely over the moon if they bring an end to foreign ownership,’ added Mr Lines, ‘but it would surprise me if the government followed through on this as it wasn’t mentioned in the bill or in the consultation.’ Now, one EU source says British negotiators are insisting that boats must be majority British-owned in order to take advantage of a larger catch in UK waters. ‘It could be possible, though administratively difficult, for the government to re-allocate any newly-won quota to British-owned boats,’ says Dr Emma Cardwell from Nottingham Trent University. ‘But it would be legally tricky to try and wrest existing UK quota from the ownership of foreign companies’.”

“Why were quotas sold off?” The BBC elaborate on the reason saying that, “Many parts of the quota were sold by English fishermen in the 1990s when fishing rights were cut dramatically. Cod fishing, for instance, was almost entirely stopped for several years. Foreign companies then bought it up as a long-term investment, and experts say the quota market has been allowed to develop in an unregulated way ever since.‘There’s a lack of clarity on the legal status of fishing rights,’ Dr Cardwell said, ‘meaning the government is very vulnerable to litigation if it tries to reallocate quota. Any foreign fishing companies that purchased UK quota in good faith would be very likely to sue if this was now taken away from them.” Is there an element of ‘cake and eat it’ here? In the lean years quotas were sold off, but now the UK demands absolute control. An in-depth Briefing for Britain Article entitled “Fishing; the great betrayal,” cronicles blunders made by the EU that seriously compromised the European fishing industry and descimated fish stocks.

The BBC point out that, “Devolution makes a difference,” saying, “As fishing is a devolved policy, the way the quota is managed differs around the UK. England and Wales, where a majority voted for Brexit, have both allowed foreign ownership of more than half their fishing quota. In Wales, which is allocated a tiny share of the UK quota, the figure is as high as 85% of the annual value – most of it held by one big industrial trawler. But in Scotland, which is responsible for about 60% of the UK quota, only 4% of the annual value in 2019 was in foreign hands. In Northern Ireland the figure was 2%. ‘The Scottish fishing industry is largely made up of family-owned businesses,’ said Elspeth MacDonald, from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation. ‘These businesses have developed the industry during the good times and have had the desire and resolve to hold on through difficult times, when others have not’.”

Accompanying graphs show the relative extent of foreign fishing vessel ownership indicating that, “The figures obtained by the BBC, in collaboration with the New Economics Foundation (NEF), reveal that a fifth of the annual value of the UK’s overall quota is held by foreign-owned companies. The total annual value is just over £900m.” According to the BBC, “Elsewhere in Europe the level of foreign ownership varies. In Belgium, the figure is just over a quarter, but other EU countries have much stricter rules. There is very little foreign ownership in France and Ireland for example, and in two countries outside the EU that have big fishing fleets – Iceland and Norway – there is no foreign ownership at all. The degree of confusion over foreign ownership of UK quota was highlighted by a ministerial response to a parliamentary question back in October. Victoria Prentis, the Fisheries Minister, admitted the Marine Management Organisation, the body responsible for English waters, ‘does not hold data relating to the degree of foreign investment’.”

In the Left Foot Forward Article entitled, “Environmental standards are key to unlocking Brexit negotiations,” Kierra Box claims that, “The ‘level playing field’ is about stopping a race to the bottom on environmental standards. Let’s face it. Almost everyone thought that Northern Ireland would be the big Brexit stumbling block. The border arrangements, or the UK Government’s continued desire to break international law through the Internal Markets Bill, would be front of the queue to torpedo a deal at the last moment. But it’s time to face up to what we at Friends of the Earth have been saying for a long time. It’s the environment, stupid! Yesterday, Boris Johnson met the European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen for (another set of) ‘last-ditch’ talks to rescue the UK-EU future relationship negotiations. Three issues were top of the agenda. Fishing rights, rules on shared standards – the so called ‘level playing field’ – and how any resulting deal will be enforced.”

Box asserts that, “At the core of the fishing rights argument are questions of sustainable (or unsustainable) food production and marine protection.” The disruption of fishing during the squabble over quotas might provide as valuable an environmental respite as Covid! Box says, “The level playing field disagreement is, at its heart, about whether the UK or the EU should be free to weaken existing environmental protections, and if both sides can agree a way of dealing with changes to standards in the future. Clashes continue over what happens if they break these important environmental rules. What we saw yesterday was more can-kicking. Both sides can agree the negotiations are back on – they just can’t agree on an outcome. The level playing field is emerging as the real hurdle. While this is often seen as wholly focused on ensuring companies in one country don’t have a financial advantage over companies elsewhere in the EU, it’s really about setting shared minimum levels of environmental and social protection.”

According to Box, “Compliance with these standards often costs money but if profit was the sole motivator, both sides could simply guarantee that businesses can act in any way they want to bring home the bacon. It is precisely because governments and communities across Europe think that protecting people and our natural world should come before business success that the level playing field has become such a totemic Brexit issue. The UK has moved from excluding mention of retaining existing standards to (seemingly) agreeing a guarantee that neither side will move backwards is acceptable. But it isn’t yet clear if that applies to all our environmental protections, or a heavily edited list of mutual priorities. And they’ve stopped short of EU suggestions that if one side increases protections in the future, the other should be bound to follow.”

Box asks, “So what is the middle ground? It’s looking increasingly as if the answer lies in three things: guarantees of shared environmental ambition, mechanisms for dialogue and effective, objective dispute settlement that respects the sovereignty of both sides. The EU is clearly unconvinced of the UK’s commitment to the first of these – environmental ambition. That’s evident from recent EU-27 proposals that the deal include an ‘evolution’ mechanism, to trigger dialogue where one partner increases standards, and agree consequences for trade where the other partner does not follow suit. Despite a manifesto commitment to environmental ambition, the UK government’s flagship Environment Bill has progressed at barely a snail’s pace, and a full post-Brexit environmental watchdog isn’t expected until next summer.”

Box reports that, “The Internal Markets Bill undermines ambition beyond Westminster, preventing the four nations from legislating to stop the sale of environmentally damaging goods in the future, as long as those goods are produced in other parts of the UK. Recent moves to deregulate the UKs planning system can’t have calmed hearts and minds either. Dialogue regarding the evolution of future environmental standards is not the sticking point here. Maybe agreeing that, and setting out a forum to share information on new higher standards and discuss mutual adoption, would be a good starting point. Right now it’s hard to envisage a compromise on the consequences of one side lagging behind on standards in the future. But back in February, when the EU first published proposals on the level playing field, the mechanism suggested involved simply ensuring the commitment not to regress remained relevant in the future.” Thankfully the key controversial clauses have now been removed!

Box points out that, “Each time both sides independently raised their standards, a new, common, higher baseline would have been established, to support future progress. The UK may now want to go and reconsider this compromise solution, and the sensitivity it demonstrates to sovereignty and progress on both sides – but it may be too late. Further indications of practical environmental progress at home might help to settle the EU’s nerves. The UK government has removed controversial clauses from the Internal Markets Bill already – they could agree to ensure it protects environmental ambition across the UK too. The Environment Bill could be strengthened and prioritised to clear a path for effective new UK environmental governance, to hold government to account. Our leaders could take practical action to implement the UK’s net-zero commitment, rather than focusing on easing up planning restrictions that protect carbon-rich landscapes and limit polluting emissions.”

Box emphasizes, “However, the real key will be to decide how this agreement will be enforced in the future. Both sides need to be happy that the dispute settlement mechanism will be fair, and respect the right of the UK and the EU-27 to develop independent legislation. But it also needs to lock the partners in to the ambition and progress outlined in the text of the deal. If the future relationship is to include commitments to trade fairly, to support climate action, and to maintain high standards, then these should be enforceable. Both sides will need to be mature enough to play fairly, to agree the rules that will guarantee they keep these promises, and to accept consequences if they do not. This maturity must extend to accepting that it is up to UK and the EU governments to demonstrate global leadership, by designing an enforcement process that is properly objective, evidence-driven and fit for purpose, and which focuses on ensuring both sides get what they want out of the agreement.”

Box concludes by saying that, “We’re now facing a new Sunday, deadline for agreeing a deal, and the environment still looks set to be the central issue. And it won’t go away – whatever the final outcome, these concerns, unlike the UK, remain. To end on a prediction – the first dispute in the future relationship, whenever it is agreed, will be about our environment, and shared ambition will only become more important in maintaining that relationship in the future. Who knew?” Kierra Box is the trade and Brexit lead campaigner at Friends of the Earth, but I’m not sure that I agree with her prediction. I believe the Working Time Directive will be an early target while the Covid crisis can still be used as a covering excuse. Breaking the power of the Unions will be a priority fir the new Tory Dictatorship so we must urgently focus on derailing the projecy before the New Year. Challenge and Investigate the Covert 2019 Rigged Election, destroy Conservative Party legitimacy and support: remove this Tory Government from office ASAP!