Brexit trade talks have already descended into a standoff between the EU and Prime Minister Johnson, as Brussels demands access to British fishing waters in exchange for UK access to European markets. Mr Johnson has made it clear that the UK must regain control of its waters and prevent unfettered access for European countries. Signing up to an EU trade deal that allows access to European markets would also mean accepting regulatory alignment with the EU27, another red line for the Prime Minister.
Leaving the Common Fisheries Policy – which allowed other EU member states to fish in British waters – was a major motivation behind the country’s decision to vote leave in 2016.
But the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier is not budging in his position, meaning talks could derail.
Brussels’ negotiating directives insist a future deal should “aim to avoid economic dislocation for EU fishermen that have traditionally fished in UK waters”.
Mr Barnier said last month: “The trade agreement will be associated with a fisheries agreement and an agreement about a level playing field or there won’t be any agreement at all.”
UK fisheries: Boris Johnson has clashed with the EU on the issue
UK fisheries: Britain is aiming to regain control of its waters
The war of words over fishing has rarely been as intense as it has become post-Brexit.
However, while Brussels’ stubbornness may be angering some in the UK, there is no threat of “war with the strongest power in the world” like there was at the turn of the 20th century.
The threat was made in 1911, as highlighted in Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson’s 2005 book ‘ Norway and the Anglo-Icelandic Cod Wars’.
Then Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey had become furious with Norway and Sweden as they refused to open up their waters to other countries while Icelandic fishing grounds also remained closed.
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UK fisheries: Barnier has demanded that EU countries keep access to UK waters
In 1890, British fishermen took their trawlers to Iceland and North Norway anyway.
In both countries, local fishermen fumed as Britons took trawlers to sweep up landing in their waters while they struggled with small boats, lines and nets.
As Mr Johannesson highlights, Iceland tried to ban trawling close to the island’s shores but “it almost goes without saying that, at the height of Pax Britannica, Great Britain would have none of that”.
An agreement was eventually reached for limits on British boats, but the UK’s fishermen were branded “poachers” and one was arrested in 1911.
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This is when Sir Edward Grey became enraged as he told the Norwegian Ambassador in London that the three-mile scope had become a vital national interest – “a principle on which we might be prepared to go to war with the strongest power in the world”.
While never backing down on their historical right to the waters, Norway did not enforce the limit on British boats in what represented a backing down in the face of the UK at the peak of its international influence.
History has shown a determination in the UK for its fisheries to succeed, which could see the EU struggle in Brexit talks today.