Now the draft withdrawal agreement has been published, much attention has been on whether it can survive Westminster politics. But there has also been the news that some other EU member states are worried about aspects of the agreement. For example, there’s the news that Spain isn’t happy about the provisions on Gibraltar.
A recent article by Reuters highlighted that five countries in particular (Denmark, France, Portugal, Spain and The Netherlands) were raising objections to the deal over the fisheries issue.
So is the withdrawal agreement really at risk from these five countries’ concerns over fishing?
Ultimately we won’t know until the negotiations conclude. But there are two things which possibly point to the answer being “no”.
Qualified majority voting and consensus decision-making
Firstly, there’s the mechanics of voting within the European Council. Article 50 outlines the withdrawal agreement will need to secure approval of 72% of EU member states, representing at least 65% of the EU’s population (the UK is obviously excluded here). Putting to one side for a moment that the European Council tends to make its decisions based on consensus rather than formal voting, if it were to come to a formal vote, these five countries aren’t enough to prevent approval.
Outside of a formal vote, then, the question will be whether the five countries’ concerns over fishing are significant enough to persuade the other EU member states that the deal isn’t worth it, especially given how difficult it has been to reach this point in the negotiations? And is fishing actually a big enough issue for these five member states themselves to derail the agreement? This brings us to the question of economic reality.
The UK fishing industry’s biggest concern in these negotiations is that its small size relative to the rest of the UK economy would mean that fishing interests would be traded off to secure benefits for more ‘important’ parts of the UK economy.
But this dilemma isn’t just limited to UK. The chart below shows how much the fishing contributes to national economies (measured as a proportion of GVA).
Similar to the UK, the fishing industry in each of the five countries expressing concerns over the draft agreement is miniscule relative to the wider economy. The country where fishing contributes the largest to the economy is Portugal, but even here it only represents 0.17% of GVA. For the EU as a whole, fishing represents 0.05% of GVA.
It’s important to remember, then, that the same tension we see in the UK is likely to be present in other EU member states.
Now this isn’t to say fishing concerns are unimportant. There is of course an overriding political imperative in all of this. Fishing may be small when looking at national economies, but as its high profile in Brexit coverage attests, it has political significance. This means it’s a key feature in the Brexit negotiations (even if the UK government wants to keep it separate). For example if the UK wants to further tweak the withdrawal agreement then expect other issues, including fishing, to be reopened - this is a negotiation after all. But at the same time we shouldn’t think that the whole process will hinge on fishing - there are other issues at stake too. This ultimately means the balancing act facing the UK when it comes to Brexit and fisheries policy is also being felt by the rest of the EU.